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In wake of Baltimore scandals, technology will bring scrutiny to all schools

by Danielle E. Gaines

Staff WriterFrom now on, when Maryland students take the state’s standardized tests in the spring, it won’t be just their answers that are tallied — their eraser marks will be, too.

The Maryland Board of Public Works on May 2 approved a $75,292 contract modification to have NCS Pearson Inc., perform an annual in-depth analysis of pencil erasure marks on all third- through eighth-grade test booklets in the state to root out possible cheating by teachers, students or administrators.

Twenty other states currently use erasure-detection technology, according to the Maryland State Department of Education’s request for funding.

“We always try to maintain the highest integrity with our testing programs. That said, we want to continue [improving test security],” said education department spokesman Bill Reinhard.

In recent years, investigators from the Maryland State Department of Education and Baltimore City Public Schools have uncovered widespread cheating by staff members at three city elementary schools. In all three cases, thousands of student answers were changed from wrong to correct, boosting the schools’ overall performance.

As a result, the school system has installed independent monitors at every school, expanded training and tightened protocols.

The digital analyses will be a backup to that process for every school in the state, Reinhard said.

When Pearson flags a booklet or batch of them, an investigation could be launched.

In previous years, the department has initiated investigations based on tips from students, school staff, parents or outside sources. The year after an allegation of cheating, a state education department observer monitors the number of erasures during the test administration. After the booklets are scored by Pearson, they are shipped to the department so the observer can check that no other answers were changed after students finished the test.

The process is inefficient because state observers only can be dispatched to do an investigation in the following testing year and only undertake investigations at schools where a complaint has been made.

Education experts say as standardized test scores are tied to other considerations, such as school and teacher evaluations, an incentive to cheat is created.

“Testing results are leading to increasingly higher-stakes decisions for students, teachers and schools,” said Adam Mendelson, communications director for the Maryland State Education Association. Mendelson said the group stands behind the decision to move to digital erasure analysis because it’s important to the education community that test results be as accurate as possible.

Reinhard said a number of testing investigations are ongoing each year, although not all infractions involve suspected cheating. He could not elaborate on any schools that might be under investigation.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published an article April 29 alleging Silver Spring’s Highland Elementary School likely cheated on its standardized tests because its scores increased significantly from 2007 to 2009.

But there is no evidence that students at the school did not earn their test scores, Principal Scott Steffan said.

Joshua P. Starr, superintendent of Montgomery County schools, said April 30 that it was not “miraculous,” as the article stated, but the result of the hard work of a great leader and motivated staff.

Dana Tofig, schools spokesman, said the school system is not investigating the claims.

“We really don’t have anything to investigate,” he said.

Staff writer Jen Bondeson contributed to this report.

jbondeson@gazette.net; dgaines@gazette.net