into the light

Previously unreleased reports reveal familiar test security issues

City educators gave out answers to state test questions, inflated Regents exam scores, and coached students to change incorrect responses dozens of times in recent years, according to reports from a slew of investigations into test improprieties.

Responding to a Freedom of Information Law request by GothamSchools for information about complaints about test security, the Department of Education released 97 reports from investigations that concluded violations had taken place. The reports were completed between 2006 and 2012 by the Department of Education’s Office of Special Investigations and the independent Special Commissioner of Investigation.

Thirty-eight of the reports documented relatively minor violations of administrative protocol. In multiple cases, for example, investigators found that teachers had photocopied exam books when there were too few before getting official permission.

But 59 of the reports substantiated allegations about cheating, some of them serious.

One of the people found to have participated in cheating in a newly released report told GothamSchools today that an administrative trial ultimately concluded that no misconduct had taken place. The department did not immediately provide details about what happened in the cases after the investigations were over.

The number of cases are not a comprehensive accounting of the scale in which cheating occurs in schools. Investigators in some of the reports suggest that suspicious activities could go underreported. But the cases do provide a snapshot of what lengths teachers go to — and the ease in which they can attempt them — to inflate their students’ test scores

Some of the reports have been made public in the past. The report dump includes the report on Ruth Ralston, found to have changed students’ answers and lied about it at the High School of Contemporary Arts, and Joyce Plush-Saly, under whose watch teachers at P.S. 58 in Brooklyn gave students test answers in advance.

But the vast majority of the reports had not previously been released. SCI releases reports only about 5 percent of the time when it concludes that wrongdoing has taken place, and OSI rarely releases any reports at all.

The newly released reports include ones in which students recount the creative strategies their teachers used to alert them to incorrect answers and, in some cases, to the correct ones as well. They also include reports about schools — such as Hillcrest High School in 2007 and New Utrecht High School in 2010 — where large numbers of students were found to have received passing Regents exam scores when they actually failed.

A year ago, the Department of Education moved to crack down on Regents exam grade inflation, introducing a new grading system that went into place citywide this month in which teachers no longer grade tests taken at their schools. Officials attributed a significant decline in the number of just-passing scores on exams taken last June to a pilot of the “distributed grading” system. A state decision to eliminate “regrading” has further reduced opportunities to inflate students’ scores, although cheating is still possible.

Department officials emphasized that the number of substantiated allegations about cheating in the last several years has been very small and that the city’s test security requirements have been stricter than what the state has required.

“We have zero tolerance for cheating and all violators are disciplined,” Connie Pankratz, a spokeswoman, said in a statement. “The department goes above and beyond the state’s test security requirements with unannounced visits by test monitors and stricter protocols such as immediately removing completed test materials from schools. These measures work.”

Since last year, the state has been ramping up its test security practices and now is set to exceed the city’s regulations. In addition, a new test security office at the state level is preparing to launch investigations based not only on allegations but also on test score data that raise red flags. Virtually all of the reports released today stemmed from allegations first made by teachers or principals, but a handful suggested that city and state data analysts had played a role in identifying suspicious score patterns.

Just one substantiated report found evidence of cheating based on allegations made by teachers who found that their students were not prepared for the next grade. Students from multiple schools arrived at M.S. 218 in Brooklyn with high scores but low skills, and investigators ultimately concluded that teachers at the elementary schools had provided test answers to fifth-graders the previous year.

Last year, two Brooklyn schools were placed under investigation for the same reason, but teachers and administrators at other schools that experience large “swing rates” in new students’ test scores sometimes do not alert the Department of Education about their suspicions. Department officials have said they do not launch investigations based on data anomalies alone.

Rise & Shine

While you were waking up, the U.S. Senate took a big step toward confirming Betsy DeVos as education secretary

Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as education secretary is all but assured after an unusual and contentious early-morning vote by the U.S. Senate.

The Senate convened at 6:30 a.m. Friday to “invoke cloture” on DeVos’s embattled nomination, a move meant to end a debate that has grown unusually pitched both within the lawmaking body and in the wider public.

They voted 52-48 to advance her nomination, teeing up a final confirmation vote by the end of the day Monday.

Two Republican senators who said earlier this week that they would not vote to confirm DeVos joined their colleagues in voting to allow a final vote on Monday. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska cited DeVos’s lack of experience in public education and the knowledge gaps she displayed during her confirmation hearing last month when announcing their decisions and each said feedback from constituents had informed their decisions.

Americans across the country have been flooding their senators with phone calls, faxes, and in-person visits to share opposition to DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist who has been a leading advocate for school vouchers but who has never worked in public education.

They are likely to keep up the pressure over the weekend and through the final vote, which could be decided by a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence.

Two senators commented on the debate after the vote. Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who has been a leading cheerleader for DeVos, said he “couldn’t understand” criticism of programs that let families choose their schools.

But Democrat Patty Murray of Washington repeated the many critiques of DeVos that she has heard from constituents. She also said she was “extremely disappointed” in the confirmation process, including the early-morning debate-ending vote.

“Right from the start it was very clear that Republicans intended to jam this nomination through … Corners were cut, precedents were ignored, debate was cut off, and reasonable requests and questions were blocked,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Week In Review

Week In Review: A new board takes on ‘awesome responsibility’ as Detroit school lawsuits advance

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
The new Detroit school board took the oath and took on the 'awesome responsibility' of Detroit's children

It’s been a busy week for local education news with a settlement in one Detroit schools lawsuit, a combative new filing in another, a push by a lawmaker to overhaul school closings, a new ranking of state high schools, and the swearing in of the first empowered school board in Detroit has 2009.

“And with that, you are imbued with the awesome responsibility of the children of the city of Detroit.”

—    Judge Cynthia Diane Stephens, after administering the oath to the seven new members of the new Detroit school board

Read on for details on these stories plus the latest on the sparring over Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos. Here’s the headlines:


The board

The first meeting of the new Detroit school board had a celebratory air to it, with little of the raucous heckling that was common during school meetings in the emergency manager era. The board, which put in “significant time and effort” preparing to take office, is focused on building trust with Detroiters. But the meeting was not without controversy.

One of the board’s first acts was to settle a lawsuit that was filed by teachers last year over the conditions of school buildings. The settlement calls for the creation of a five-person board that will oversee school repairs.

The lawyers behind another Detroit schools lawsuit, meanwhile, filed a motion in federal court blasting Gov. Rick Snyder for evading responsibility for the condition of Detroit schools. That suit alleges that deplorable conditions in Detroit schools have compromised childrens’ constitutional right to literacy — a notion Snyder has rejected.


In Lansing

On DeVos

In other news