When Education Secretary Arne Duncan urged the country’s education commissioners this summer to ensure their standardized tests were as secure and reliable as possible, he specifically recommended four measures that would help them do so.
Here in New York State, officials for the most part heeded his advice. Last week, Commissioner John King’s proposal to upgrade testing and scoring procedures included three of the four measures.
But state officials ignored one Duncan recommendation: to conduct “unannounced, on-site visits during test administration.” That raised a red flag for Kathleen Cashin, a member of the Board of Regents who supervised schools in Brooklyn and Queens for many years.
“That is a preventive way, if someone is thinking of cheating, they might think twice if they knew someone was in the building touring,” Cashin said at last week’s Board of Regents meeting.
Principals and teachers report they rarely or never see test monitors in their schools, but it wasn’t always that way.
As a former district and regional superintendant in Brooklyn, Cashin said she blanketed her schools with monitors on testing days — uncovered cheating tactics that she said aren’t likely to be discovered in a computerized analysis of answer sheets, which King’s proposal calls for.
Transgressions included test proctors who helped students on questions, guided them toward the correct answer, allowed more time than was allotted and posted instructional materials on walls that would be helpful on tests.
“We caught people cheating even with the oversight,” said Cashin. “Imagine what’s going on without it.”
Cashin was referring to a change in the way test monitors are distributed among schools. Before school support services were restructured around networks, district offices had the responsibility of monitoring and deploying staff members to schools on test days. But district offices were downsized and stripped of many school responsibilities as part of the shift.
Now, test monitoring is coordinated centrally. Monitors are dispersed randomly to cover about 10 percent of schools that administer standardized tests. Last year, they made 99 visits to 97 elementary and middle schools over the six-day testing period.
“People know that at any moment, someone could be in there,” said Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky, who oversees implementation of the current system. “We’re not going to have enough people to hit every single school on every single testing day, but the fact that people are aware that they will eventually get audited as part of that is an effective deterrent.”
Teachers and principals have noticed the drop-off in monitors on test day as well.
“We used to have monitors where you had a body going room to room but now you have teachers who are alone in their own exam,” said Robert Hannibal, a middle school principal in the Bronx. “I haven’t had (monitors) in three or four years.”
One teacher said that while she never saw any of the monitors, their visits were “mentioned during every meeting preparing us to administer the tests and were seen as quite likely to be sent to our schools.”
“In recent years,” the teacher said, “I have never heard of monitors.”
State regulations don’t have specific requirements for school districts when it comes to conducting on-site visits and Polakow-Suransky points out that New York City’s guidelines actually go above and beyond what is required of them from the state.
Still, Cashin believes the random sampling implemented by New York City is insufficient and said districts should boost monitoring statewide.
Many state officials, including Cashin, say that districts should be responsible for providing their own monitors on test days. It is unclear what role, if any, the state would play in forcing districts to do so.
A new regulation that mandates districts to allocate resources and personnel for on-site visits could still emerge if it wasn’t included in this month’s proposal. King said that he would take Cashin’s suggestions into consideration when he consults with his test security task force and return with a more detailed plan at next month’s meeting.