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In wake of national scandals, state is reviewing test security

New York State has launched a fast-moving process to tighten test security before it risks following Georgia, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey into cheating scandals.

State Education Commissioner John King has convened a group to review “all aspects of the state’s testing system,” according to a statement from Jonathan Burman, a State Education Department spokesman. The group, which Deputy Commissioner Valerie Grey is leading, is planning to work quickly, Burman said: It was formed in mid-July and will announce a “series of measures” to ensure test integrity before the school year begins a month from now.

The announcement comes days before the state is set to release this year’s reading and math test scores and amid growing revelations about widespread cheating in Atlanta, Philadelphia, and New Jersey. It also follows mounting anxiety among state officials about whether schools’ performance had been inflated: Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said in February that New York wished to avoid becoming “the Enron of test scores, the Enron of graduation rates.”

Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott said he appreciated the state’s efforts but emphasized that New York City has for years “gone above and beyond” state requirements when it comes to ensuring test integrity.

“We welcome the state examining its standards, as it has always been its regulatory responsibility to ensure the reliability and security of state tests,” he said in a statement.

But the city is confident that its test results are sound, Walcott said, citing a 2009 audit by then-Comptroller Bill Thompson that he said confirmed the city’s test scores. In fact, while that audit found no new instances of cheating, it concluded that the city Department of Education had “engaged in sloppy and unprofessional practices that encourage cheating and data manipulation.”

Walcott also cautioned that any new measures to toughen test security could come with a high price tag that cash-strapped districts could have difficulty paying.

“I hope that as the state puts in place stricter security precautions, they don’t saddle districts with unfunded mandates,” he said.

One costly precaution that the state review group is likely to discuss is erasure analysis, a practice that detects suspicious patterns of changed answers. Georgia, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey all used erasure analysis to identifying instances of probable cheating. But New York State does not currently conduct erasure analysis on test results, Burman told me.

New York City stopped conducting systematic erasure analysis in 2001 and now employs the practice to corroborate or reject cheating allegations that are backed by other evidence, according to city officials.

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