State tests already in city schools with weeks before test date

Schools conducting test prep this week — and, in some cases, next week during break — have been doing so with a potential cheat sheet nearby.

English language arts exams begin the Tuesday after spring break for students in grades 3-8. But schools have had the tests since as early as Friday — an arrangement intended to give test coordinators enough time to make sure the right number of booklets and answer sheets are on hand for the three-day testing period that begins April 17.

The state distributes exams to local districts weeks before the testing dates, and districts decide when to pass the tests out to schools. Like many districts across the state, the city Department of Education has long distributed tests to schools by about a week before the test dates. But this year, because the exams begin right after the city schools’ spring break — a schedule that caused hiccups when the state rolled it out this year to facilitate new teacher evaluations — the department decided to deliver the tests even earlier. Schools received the tests more than two weeks before they are due to begin.

The adjustment raises questions about how the department can ensure that all tests remain secure while they are in schools. The department has strict guidelines about who can handle test materials, for how long, and in what ways. Last week, principals received an extra reminder about test security this year.

“Please take all necessary steps to ensure that these exams are safeguarded during spring break,” read an item in this week’s Principal’s Weekly email newsletter.

But some principals are concerned that not enough is being done to make sure all schools closely adhere to the guidelines, particularly as some keep their doors open through the break to allow for additional test preparation.

“Basically it’s just a trust factor,” one principal told me.

Department officials have long maintained the city’s test security procedures go “above and beyond” the state’s requirements, and Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky characterized the city’s elementary and middle school exam security as “airtight” earlier this year.

And today Chancellor Dennis Walcott said he believed the guidelines would address the additional time that tests will be in schools.“We haven’t had any major issues at all and so I’m confident in our teachers and I’m confident our safeguards will protect the tests,” he said.

Under the city’s rules, test coordinators are supposed to open the box to count the exams when they first receive the package of tests. But they are forbidden from removing a layer of shrink wrap that keeps the booklets’ content hidden. After verifying the number of exams, coordinators are instructed to then reseal the boxes and place them in a secure and locked space until testing day — this year, April 17. Then the completed exams must be delivered to a central office no later than 3 p.m. the day they are taken.

The department sends monitors to audit test protocol in about 10 percent of schools each year during the six-day math and English testing periods. It’s not clear whether they would be able to verify in all cases that the exam materials had remained shrink-wrapped until the test date.

After a 2010 audit into the city’s testing procedures raised concerns about the number of opportunities for school officials to access testing materials before the test date, the city began requiring all schools to administer tests on the first day of the state’s week-long window. The state has turned that requirement into a statewide policy this year as part of its newfound emphasis on test security.

Last month, in the shadow of testing scandals that have erupted around the country, the New York State Education Department announced it was creating an office to focus solely on preventing and investigating instances of test fraud. Until now, districts had been responsible for looking into local allegations, and no comprehensive system has existed to examine scores for suspicious patterns.