Georgia test review shows possible cheating

ATLANTA --- More than a dozen school districts are expected to launch investigations after a state review showed possible cheating on standardized tests at about 20 percent of Georgia elementary and middle schools last year.

The report released Wednesday by the Governor's Office of Student Achievement shows that about 370 schools -- including Lamar and Hornsby elementary schools in Richmond County -- had an unusually high number of erasures on tests last spring.

Richmond County schools spokesman Louis Svehla said Wednesday that he was not aware of an investigation. Dr. Dana Bedden was out of town, and the school board last met Tuesday.

The highest numbers of changes to answers on exams were found in 74 of the 1,800 schools reviewed -- or about 4 percent, agency director Kathleen Mathers told the state Board of Education during its monthly meeting.

Those 74 schools are in more than a dozen districts, each of which is expected to investigate testing practices to see whether cheating occurred, Mathers said. She has requested that monitors be placed in those schools during the testing period this spring and that state workers pay unannounced visits to other schools that were flagged by the review.

"We are not saying in any way that we think teachers in those buildings changed answers on tests," Mathers said. "We are saying this looks unusual."

It's the first time the state has taken a comprehensive look at standardized testing, which is part of how the officials measure whether schools have met federal education benchmarks.

At least one district -- Atlanta Public Schools -- announced shortly after Mathers' presentation that it will investigate the data. The 50,000-student district has 43 schools on the list with the most erasures. That's more than any other district.

Besides Richmond County, other districts where schools had unusually high numbers of erasures were: DeKalb, Dougherty, Clayton, Muscogee, Fulton, Quitman, Bibb, Carroll and Spalding counties; the Gainesville city schools; and the Department of Juvenile Justice.

Atlanta was one of four districts in which a handful of fifth-grade math test results were thrown out last year because an audit by Mathers' agency found that someone had tampered with answer sheets once students turned them in to teachers. The audit -- which uncovered cheating in four schools -- came out about two months after the tests covered in the new report were administered.

State schools Superintendent Kathy Cox said if any new investigations uncovered cheating, the districts would be appropriately sanctioned and the tests would be tossed out. But she cautioned against jumping to conclusions before the probes are completed.

"There are a lot of reasons a kid could make a lot of erasures," Cox said after Wednesday board meeting.

Mathers' office looked at every Criterion-Referenced Competency Test taken in Georgia last spring for grades one through eight -- about 3 million exams. A test was flagged if it had many more erasures than the average for the student's peers.

The 74 schools on the list with the highest number of erasures in the state saw 25 percent or more of their classrooms with unusually high numbers of changes to test answers. Nine schools on the list had more than 70 percent of classrooms with questionable test answer sheets.

Staff reports were used in this article.

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