Education: Files describe 'irregularities' by WASL givers

MARTHA MODEEN; The News Tribune

May 30, 2004

Washington State - "How did you do on the test?"

A mother from Graham asked her fifth-grade son that question one day in April after he finished a portion of the state's standardized science test.

"I know we all did good because we got to correct them," he replied.

That didn't sound quite right to the boy's mother, according to the subsequent school district investigation. Nor to Bethel school officials, who later invalidated all fifth-grade science tests administered by the boy's teacher at Rocky Ridge Elementary and suspended the teacher for 15 days for violating WASL test protocols.

The incident is one of nearly two dozen reports of improperly administered tests received by the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction this year from school districts across the state. Details of testing "irregularities" are spelled out in nearly 200 pages of documents obtained by The News Tribune through state disclosure laws.

State education officials say WASL testing abnormalities are just that, rare bumps in the road, with 400,000 students successfully taking the test this year.

But some say there are problems with OSPI relying on schools to self-police testing and report troubles. Critics say schools have an inherent conflict of interest with so much to gain or lose. Under federal education reform laws, failing schools can have their staffs reassigned or face other sanctions. Passing the WASL will be tied to graduation for students beginning with the class of 2008.

"When excessively heavy weight is given to tests, all kinds of behaviors that corrupt the meaning of the test take place," said Robert Schaeffer of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a watchdog group critical of high-stakes assessment tests.

"As the pressure around testing goes up, some people crack and cross the ethical line to get the scores they need."

Other states, such as California, Pennsylvania, Florida and Colorado, have wrestled with similar issues of overeager teachers knowingly or unknowingly helping students too much on standardized tests.

"This is a nationwide phenomena," Schaeffer said. "It's not right, but it's a predictable consequence of the extraordinary pressure teachers and schools are under to boost scores by any means possible."

This year, some WASL irregularities outlined in OSPI records involve teachers skirting the rules; others involve well-meaning teachers, ignorant of testing protocols.

The infractions range from relatively minor, such as displaying general testing tips in the classroom, to more serious offenses that have resulted in educators being disciplined.

A handful of teachers have been reprimanded, placed on paid leave or suspended without pay for allegedly disclosing questions in advance of the exam, changing answers or counseling students to amend their answers.

The state might invalidate certain tests at seven schools and is closely watching scores at eight other schools, according to preliminary estimates.

State testing coordinator Paul Dugger thinks school districts are honestly reporting testing anomalies because they're better trained to spot them. "The consultations are better than they've ever been, and I think that helps," he said.

The state works with school districts all year to prepare for the test and, this year, sent out a guidance manual before the April 19-May 7 testing window.

In the Rocky Ridge incident, students told school officials that teacher Jeanne Dykstra directed them to adjust their answers, a claim she denied when the case was investigated.

The state's testing coordinator said any of Dykstra's several departures from testing protocols and the "flagrant disregard and clear abandonment" of standards invalidated her students' test scores. Dykstra received a 15-day paid suspension.

Among other problems Washington schools reported to the state:

•A middle-school teacher in Yakima County's Toppenish School District is on paid administrative leave while officials investigate allegations of an inordinate number of erasures and "serious irregularities" relating to a seventh-grade WASL test, according to documents and interviews. The district expects to finish its investigation in about two weeks, said Lance King, the district's director of human resources.

•A fourth-grade teacher in the Edmonds School District looked at each student's booklet after they took the math WASL and told several students "you need to redo this." The teacher, who didn't attend proctor training sessions, apparently told administrators, "But I didn't tell them how to answer it?!" The teacher was "devastated" to learn her actions were improper and did not intend to give students an unfair advantage, said Debbie Jakala, district spokeswoman. The students' tests will not be invalidated, Jakala said.

•At Beachwood Elementary in the Clover Park School District, a fourth-grade teacher is under scrutiny. The teacher maintains she did nothing wrong, but a district administrator reviewed her test prep materials used all year and wrote "it is obvious the questions the teacher used to prepare the students in the day or two before the test were so close to the actual test questions that they appear to have been generated from the actual WASL math test." The district has recommended two weeks unpaid suspension, which the teacher is appealing. The News Tribune is not naming the teacher because the case is unresolved.

•Federal Way's Saghalie Middle School Principal Tim Mackey received a 15-day suspension without pay after he told three eighth-grade science teachers that they might want to review certain science subjects if they hadn't done so already. None of the teachers acted on his comments.

•Spanaway Junior High School teacher Britt Rickert was given a 15-day unpaid suspension. District officials said she used overhead slides in a class to offer a sample writing exercise "very similar" to the state's test. Rickert could not be reached for comment.

Aside from questions about teacher misconduct, students also have sought advantages on the WASL by sharing test questions, records show. At Timberline High School in the North Thurston School District, a 10th-grader came to school with a "mind-map" or outline of a WASL writing prompt he learned from a student at another high school, who had taken the test the previous day. That portion of the student's test likely will be invalidated, state records indicate.

The student told school officials he was unaware his outline wasn't permitted, said Tim McGillivray, spokesman.

Next year, the state will move to uniform testing days for 10th-graders to further deter students from sharing test information.

"We've had concerns about the writing prompt," said Jean Teague, Marysville's executive director of assessment. "It's critical the state goes to a standardized schedule for grade 10.

"It's going to become the higher-stakes test (and) a valid college admission tool."

Some state legislators are wondering if the state test needs to be more carefully monitored.

"We're moving into uncharted territory," said Rep. Kathy Haigh (D-Shelton), a member of the House Education Committee. Haigh thinks the WASL might need to be monitored "as much as the ACT or SAT."

The long-established SAT test, designed and administered by Educational Testing Services of Princeton, N.J., employs a number of measures to discourage student cheating, such as secure shipping of tests. The ETS also uses numbered test booklets and seating charts to allow for analyzing student testing patterns. ETS proctors will also arrive unannounced at testing sites to perform spot checks.

Of the 2 million SAT tests taken each year, about 3,000 tests are examined for irregularities, with roughly 1,000 tests proving problematic because of cheating and other reasons, said Tom Ewing, ETS spokesman.

But even the experienced SAT administrators have no guarantees of catching teacher cheating, he said. The ETS, like WASL administrators, relies on calls from students, parents and others to alert them to suspected cheating.

"The vast majority of students are honest. They have no hesitancy at all in calling us to let us know of problems," Ewing said. "We get hundreds and hundreds of calls."

Rep. Gigi Talcott (R-Tacoma), a member of the House Education committee, believes the vast majority of test-taking across the state is honest, but would like to see tighter controls and more accountability.

"I would like to believe that every classroom teacher, every politician and every car salesman is honest," Talcott said. "But I know that's not the case."

Martha Modeen: 253-597-8646

SIDEBAR: WASL Washington Assessment of Student Learning rules

Teachers, proctors cannot:

• Point to a student's answer and encourage further explanation.

• Change answers on student tests or suggest changes.

• Disclose questions in advance of the test.

• Use practice questions that too closely resemble actual questions.

• Give definitions of words.

• Post testing strategies inside the classroom during the test.


• Are not allowed to discuss test questions during breaks or while testing.

• Are allowed breaks no longer than 5 to 10 minutes while testing, typically.

• May not use word processors, except for special circumstances.

• May use calculators on one section of the math test.

• May use published dictionaries on the writing test, but not student- or teacher-created dictionaries.

• May not go back or skip ahead to complete or redo other sections of the test.

SOURCE: Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction




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