Facebook Twitter

New test security office formed after state audit details faults

The state’s system for pursuing allegations of test fraud is disorganized, outdated and ill-equipped to root out cheating, according to a independent auditor’s findings released today.

wA four-month, self-imposed audit into the State Education Department’s current test integrity policies found nearly two dozen areas where the department was deficient in dealing with claims where cheating could have occurred on state tests. The audit came months after U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan urged state commissioners across the country to scrutinize their test integrity practices following a spate of cheating scandals.

Among the recommendations made by the auditor, Hank Greenberg, was the creation of a new top-level office called the “Test Security Unit.” Officials said the office will be budgeted with $1 million annually to staff a team of seven investigators with backgrounds in law enforcement and law to deal with cheating allegations on a daily basis.

For the first time, state investigators will proactively seek out suspicious testing trends through data forensics and conduct their own probes, a change that Greenberg called a “paradigm shift.”

No office previously existed solely to investigate allegations and the audit’s findings suggest that SED does not have a realistic grasp for how widespread the cheating problem is. Until now, charges were logged and tracked through an antiquated paper-based system in an office that was ill-equipped to handle test integrity issues. Investigations were left up to local school districts, which had little incentive to comprehensively conduct such probes.

SED received fewer than 100 allegations per year from 2006-2011 and verified half of them, Greenberg said.

Commissioner John King said that the administrative overhaul was a sign of the state’s increasing role in education policy at a time when test results play a significant role in measuring student growth and evaluating teacher effectiveness.

“Historically, these sorts of test integrity issues were viewed as local issues, and that began to change somewhat with No Child Left Behind, where the state began to take larger control,” King said in a conference call with reporters.

King acknowledged that even while the state was pouring resources into test development and administration in recent years, it was not as concerned about the credibility of those tests.

“At the time test integrity was not the focus of what it needed to be,” King said.

Assistant Commissioner Valerie Grey said the unit would cost about $1 million to pay for the salaries and fringe benefits of the seven new staff members. She said it wouldn’t require additional funding because SED planned to reallocate money from budget line items that are currently unfilled. She did not specify where the money would come from.

One tool that might not be at the new unit’s disposal is the ability to detect test sheets for suspiciously high rates of erasure. Erasure analysis was one of several programs that SED sought funding for as a line item in the 2012-2013 budget, a request that was denied in preliminary drafts. Officials said today that it was a crucial piece to their test integrity efforts and remained optimistic that funding would be added back in before the April 1 deadline. “It’s not over yet,” King said of the budgetary process.

The new test integrity announcements were met with skepticism from teacher union president Michael Mulgrew, a frequent critic of standardized testing.

“If SED spent even half as much time trying to improve curriculum and teacher retention as it does on test and test security, New York State would have better schools,” Mulgrew said.

The state only released and outline of Greenberg’s findings, but declined to share the more comprehensive version with reporters. The full report will be released on Monday for the state’s monthly Board of Regents meeting.