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Beneath strident self-defense, DOE seeking tighter test security

Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said she believes the city’s schools have improved, but urged the Department of Education should do more to prove that its test scores are “bulletproof.”

Tisch made the comment at this morning’s City Hall News and GothamSchools “On Education” panel: “I think the city has an obligation to show the public that what they’ve done here is real,” she said, noting that she had “had conversations with the city on this issue.”

Department of Education Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky, who also sat on the panel, defended the department against the suggestion that cheating is widespread, noting that investigations substantiate very few cheating allegations. He said that the department plans to release a more complete accounting of its internal investigations into cheating allegations, similar to the one released earlier this week by the Special Commissioner of Investigation, an independent office.

But Polakow-Suransky also said that more could be done to tighten test controls and that the city “would welcome more scrutiny.” He told GothamSchools that the city has offered to chip in to help the state create a “distributed scoring system” whereby students’ Regents exams could be electronically sent to other schools to be graded by teachers with no relationship to them. Currently, teachers grade their own students’ exams.

That system would be the best option for preventing teachers from changing exam grades, Polakow-Suransky said, but the cost — which officials pegged as high as $20 million — is too much for New York City to undertake alone.

“I think the state has an obligation to pay for that,” he said. “We’ve offered to help with some of our Race to the Top money, and we’re looking into some models that we can begin to test in hopes that they will take it over statewide. That’s the real solution to this.”

Another member of the panel, high school social studies teacher (and GothamSchools Community section contributor) Stephen Lazar said that while cheating should be discouraged, the notion that it is a systematic problem is overhyped. “I think everyone would agree it’s a small finite problem that is easy to write about in the press,” he said.

Lazar described one on-the-ground effect of changes to prevent cheating. He said that complying with a rule introduced this year that prohibits teachers from regrading the short-answer portion of Regents exams meant that he was left with a student two points of the score required to graduate and no discretion to check whether the grade was correct.

“I want to make sure I can go back and double-check my work to make sure my work was correct,” Lazar said. “To tell me that I’m not allowed to go back and double-check that student’s work to make sure that he actually gets the grade that he deserves, which determines whether or not he’s entering college … is to say that that student’s life is less valuable than making sure that we have a system that evaluates teachers.”

Polakow-Suransky told GothamSchools that he supported the new rule but that it was not a complete solution to the pressures teachers face.

“The reason the state made that rule is that when the teachers grade their own kids, there is something else that potentially gets introduced into that decision to regrade,” Polakow-Suransky said. “The decision might be the right thing to do in some instances, to regrade, but it has to be done by someone who is disinterested in the outcome.”

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