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New York State's bulked-up test security team opens its inbox

Starting today, school staffers can report their cheating suspicions online.

The state’s new test security watchdog has launched its website, allowing people to use an electronic form to file allegations about possible cheating by educators on state tests.

It’s one of the first concrete moves by the State Education Department’s new test security unit, created last year after a self-imposed audit of the department’s test security policies found them severely lacking.

The audit came after U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan urged states to scrutinize their test integrity practices following a spate of high-profile cheating scandals. The scandals threatened to undermine the real and perceived value of test scores even as New York State was attaching higher stakes to its scores.

The audit concluded that the state’s paper-based system for receiving allegations of improprieties was disorganized and outdated, creating the potential for “underreporting and underestimation of information.” Plus, the Office of State Assessment did not have anyone assigned exclusively to investigate allegations that did come in.

Now, four investigators — all former state and federal law enforcement officers — are ready to look into cheating allegations received online, according to Tina Sciocchetti, who heads SED’s Test Security and Educator Integrity office. The investigators are also working on piles of years-old cold cases absorbed from the assessment office.

Sciocchetti said her office would periodically release reports from closed investigations. Every August, the unit will release a summary of the number of cases it received and investigated in the previous year, she said.

In addition to making it easier for people to report cheating by educators, the test security unit is also opening up communication with New York City’s school investigators.

In the past, when state officials have asked the city’s Special Commissioner of Investigation to look into an allegation they received, they rarely found out what came of the cases. Now, they will follow up to find out whether investigations have taken place and what they concluded.

“From the state’s perspective there was a real breakdown in the tracking of investigations,” Sciocchetti said. “What we recognized was that we really had to improve the communication among our offices.”

New York City is also working to bolster the way its school investigative units communicate with each other. The Department of Education’s Office of Special Investigations and SCI, an independent unit, have long had a disjointed relationship. Each office requires allegations to be filed differently, and the two offices often volley allegations back and forth for months before any case is opened. Some investigations last years, and key witnesses aren’t always interviewed.

Last week, the city told principals that it had created a new office, the Office of Case Assessment and Review, to coordinate between the two investigative offices. The new office is meant “to provide extra support to principals, and the office will work directly with schools to facilitate investigations and provide guidance on disciplining staff,” said spokeswoman Connie Pankratz.

Pressure to respond adequately to credible cheating allegations is not coming only from the state. The mainstream media is also casting increased scrutiny on how districts handle allegations that could undermine their test score claims. Last week, a Frontline documentary on former Washington, D.C., Chancellor Michelle Rhee included the story of a principal who filed a cheating allegation after she saw teachers erasing student exams just hours after students completed the tests. D.C. Public Schools and a federal investigator ignored her allegations, according to the report.

Until recently, New York State has had some of the country’s weakest test security policies, according to a survey conducted by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which reported that many states were ill equipped to fully safeguard against cheating. New York officials said the AJC report did not accurately reflect New York’s test security practices because the department declined to respond to the newspaper’s survey. (The newspaper based its data on the state’s audit instead.)

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