Most students taking this week’s state reading test are doing so under the watchful eyes of their regular classroom teacher. Teachers proctor their own students’ exams in most schools, in an arrangement that is logistically simple and keeps students calm — but also represents a soft spot in the state’s efforts to prevent cheating.
As part of its recent efforts to safeguard against fraud, New York State has reduced educators’ access to tests before they are administered and increased scrutiny on tests after they are returned to see whether answers were changed unusually often. The latter measure, known as erasure analysis, helped investigators uncover adult cheating in Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., in recent years.
But even as the state has taken steps to prevent improprieties at a time when ensuring that scores accurately reflect student performance is increasingly important, it has left proctoring relatively unregulated. Erasure analysis and pre-test security can’t reveal whether students were advised to check their work on specific questions or, more egregiously, were actually given the answers while they took the tests.
“Test administration with educators proctoring their own students is one of the weak links in the testing process,” said Greg Cizek, a professor at the University of North Carolina who specializes in educational measurement and test security.
Cheating complaints in New York City schools are up in recent years, with allegations running the gamut of test security improprieties. And as this year’s state tests approached, the proctoring security gap in proctoring received renewed attention last week in two elementary schools in Glen Cove, a small school district on Long Island’s north shore. More than a dozen teachers in those schools are under investigation for “coaching” the students they proctored during last year’s state tests.
Research is sparse on which policies to combat test-day cheating are most effective, Cizek said. The one that states and districts use most often is dispatching unannounced monitors to a sample of schools during testing periods.
New York’s monitoring programs have shrunk in recent years, with state monitoring visits down 23 percent in 2011 and city monitoring down 80 percent since 2008. City and state officials said they planned to increase monitoring visits this year.
A more aggressive strategy is to ban teachers from proctoring their own students’ exams and reassign them instead to proctor in another classroom or school. A review of state education department policies by the Atlanta Journal Constitution found that nine states had a version of that policy.
The New York State Education Department briefly considered the idea two years ago. Barring teachers from proctoring their own students’ exams would remove “a temptation” to cheat, Commissioner John King and then-Assistant Commissioner Valerie Grey wrote in a memo to the Regents. But they shelved the proposal out of concerns that introducing different adults on testing day could unnecessarily add to students’ anxiety.
That concern was valid, especially for elementary schools, said Cizek. “At the younger grades, there is a consensus to have students’ own teachers proctor their exams,” he said.
Cizek said security procedures can also become so tight that they disrupt schools’ cultures and, ultimately, threaten student learning. “What we want to do is build trust that teachers are proctoring tests credibly,” he said. “Shuffling proctors sends the message that we can’t trust educators.”
Officials in New York said that despite the recent cheating allegations in Glen Cove, they’re confident in their current approach.
“Our workforce is an honest workforce and they’re going to do the job properly as far as administering the test,” said city Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott.
But concerns remain that the high-stakes nature of the tests could push otherwise honest teachers to act dishonestly, especially now that teachers’ own ratings will weigh student scores in most districts. Just last year, three of the city’s top-rated elementary schools came under investigation for coaching their students during state tests. Former students at the schools saw their scores drop significantly as sixth graders.
Cizek said one way that states can improve monitoring right away is through better training and more robust investigative units to investigate wrongdoing, such as the one that New York created this year. In an interview, King said the state is also increasing training for monitors, but he said it would still be difficult to guarantee that cheating does not occur.
“There’s no system that could ensure that no one makes any bad decisions,” said King. “That’s impossible.”