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Auditors: Test tampering at schools in ATL, DeKalb, Fulton


Last fall, DeKalb County school officials could find no improprieties at a Decatur-area elementary where fifth-graders showed phenomenal improvement on a state-mandated math test.

Now, state auditors say, the evidence is overwhelming that someone tampered with the tests last summer at Atherton Elementary School in DeKalb and three others in Georgia.

Auditors believe “someone who had access to test materials after testing concluded changed multiple students’ answers” at the four schools, the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement said in preliminary findings presented Wednesday to the State Board of Education.

The report found similar evidence of tampering with fifth-graders’ retests for reading at Atherton, but not the other schools.

The Atherton students had failed a standardized, statewide math test in the spring. All 32 passed the retest, including 26 at the highest level – an accomplishment unique among Georgia fifth-graders over the past three years, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in December.

The improved scores lifted Atherton and the three others into the “Adequate Yearly Progress” category under the federal No Child Left Behind law. Schools that don’t meet AYP must offer tutoring for students who need it and allow parents to transfer their kids to another school if they wish.

The auditors targeted six schools to identify students whose tests showed a disproportionate number of answers that had been changed from wrong to right.

The analysis found that all Atherton students who took the retests – 32 in math, and nine reading — were in the 98th to 99th percentile of wrong-to-right answers.

Evidence of test tampering was also high at Parklane Elementary in Fulton County, Deerwood Academy in Atlanta and Burroughs-Mollette Elementary in Glynn County, auditors said.

The investigation was sparked by an AJC statistical analysis that found extraordinary improvements in fifth-grade retest scores at five Georgia schools.

DeKalb school officials investigated the week before the AJC published its story and found “no evidence of testing irregularities.” School officials interviewed Atherton’s assistant principal and four teachers, who attributed the improvements to smaller class sizes and students’ attentiveness during summer school.

Principal James Berry said use of a “Ladders to Success” workbook and excellent teaching methods made the difference in the students’ scores, according to DeKalb’s internal investigation. “The teachers did an amazing job in preparing our students for success,” he said.

The Office of Student Achievement isn’t buying it: “If ‘Ladders to Success’ were in and of itself a truly remarkable program, GOSA would expect to see similar gains across all summer school programs in DeKalb. That did not happen.”

The audit report recommended:

— Throwing out the 2008 retest scores at the four schools,

— Reinstating the schools’ “did not make AYP” designation,

— Requiring school districts to notify parents of the affected students,

— Tougher monitoring by the central office of summer retests in 2009 and 2010, and

— For DeKalb specifically, tighter security for the test materials once the students have finished them: “DeKalb School System should not allow schools to hold test materials over a weekend.” The central office should pick up test materials at each school rather than allowing administrators from each school to deliver them.





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