For the first time in the history of high-stakes testing in Washington, the state has thrown out the math and reading scores of an entire school — Seattle’s Beacon Hill International — after finding so many answers changed from wrong to right that nearly every student passed the exams.
The state isn’t calling it cheating, a determination officials say the Seattle Public Schools must make about what happened with the elementary school’s tests.
But the state will say that “significant alterations” on the tests indicate that protocols weren’t followed, which is why the scores won’t count, according to Nathan Olson, spokesman for the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI).
The district, which announced Tuesday afternoon that the scores were invalidated, isn’t using the word cheating either, saying that its own investigation is still ongoing and no district employees have been placed on leave.
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Instead, they say the changes were so egregious, they still aren’t sure what happened.
“We are not convinced that cheating was the motivation,” said Clover Codd, who oversees the district’s research, evaluation and assessment department. “It’s such an odd case. It’s perplexing.
“There was heavy erasure in every single classroom and every single grade, from incorrect answers to correct answers, and virtually 100 percent of the students met standard.”
Codd and interim Superintendent Larry Nyland made a point of standing behind the school’s teachers, saying they trust their professionalism.
“We are so proud of Beacon Hill,” Codd said. “We don’t want this incident to erase all of the teachers’ hard work.”
Seattle Public Schools asked for the state’s review in August after seeing spikes in the preliminary results from the tests, which are given across the state each spring. The district also hired an independent investigator.
The state then analyzed the test booklets, and found that almost all the Beacon Hill students got the right answers to every multiple-choice question, far exceeding state averages, and many got them right only after wrong answers had been erased and replaced with the right ones.
Districts are supposed to follow a highly detailed set of state and local procedures to maintain a “secure chain of custody” of test booklets from the moment they arrive at a school until they’re sent to the vendor for grading.
The principal ultimately is responsible for making sure the booklets are kept in a secure area with restricted access, according to the letter OSPI sent to Seattle Public Schools last week.
It notes that last spring, when the tests were given, both Seattle Public Schools and OSPI “heard of possible concerns about testing protocol in Beacon Hill International School.”
Codd said Tuesday that multiple people had access to the Beacon Hill room where the booklets were kept.
Beacon Hill parent Molly Sedlik Hasson, the co-president of the school’s parent-teacher association, said she was devastated by the news.
“We saw how hard our teachers and our kids prepared for this test,” she said. “We know this is a big deal for them.”
Sedlik Hasson’s children were in second and fifth grades when the disputed test was given last spring at the K-5 school, which is one of Seattle’s nine international schools, offering immersion language programs in Spanish and Mandarin.
The school, which has about 460 students, is a popular one. Before the past year, its test scores were close to or exceeding state and district averages.
Sedlik Hasson said parents initially worried how the invalidated scores would affect their children.
But she said the school’s principal, Po-yuk Tang, has assured them students would feel no negative consequences. “Nothing is going to change at the school because of this,” she said.
Sedlik Hasson is reserving judgment about what happened until the school district finishes its investigation, but she is concerned teacher morale could suffer.
The parent group is ready to help, she said, whether it means bringing dinner to staff meetings or helping with the state’s investigation.
Since state testing began in 1997, the state has examined tests from specific grades within a school. But Beacon Hill is the first schoolwide review the state has ever tackled, according to Olson, the state education office’s spokesman.
The state mostly did not find suspicious patterns on the test’s short-answer questions, just the multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank items.
Beacon Hill students were much more likely than their peers around the state to have gotten the multiple choice or “fill in the blank” questions correct.
Investigators examined the answers to 20 to 25 multiple-choice questions to see how often a wrong answer was erased and replaced by the correct answer.
For example, on one of the fourth-grade reading questions, about 55 percent of the Beacon Hill students got the right answer only after the original answer had been erased. The corrected answers resulted in 100 percent of the students getting the question right compared with the state average of about 60 percent.
The high percentage of correct answers on the multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank questions catapulted Beacon Hill’s scores high above its performance the previous year.
For example, about 30 percent of the students on the previous year’s third-grade math test appeared to score well enough to be considered “advanced,” the highest level.
But that number soared to more than 80 percent on the test last spring.
And almost 100 percent of the fifth-grade students scored at the “advanced level” last spring, compared with about a third scoring that well the year before.
The results do raise concerns about cheating, which has occurred in a number of districts across the country in recent years.
But in Washington state, and in Seattle, teachers and schools don’t get any financial bonuses based on test-score results, and the results don’t play a large role in their evaluations either.
In Seattle, low scores at most trigger a closer look by the principal.
In the past, the state superintendent’s office has done little to uncover potential cheating on state tests. It does not pay for post-test analyses, including erasure analysis, that many other states use to detect potential wrongdoing.
Instead, the office has relied on prevention efforts, as well as trusting in school district personnel and parents to report any suspicious patterns or incidents, which is what Seattle did.
But a district internal audit last month also found that Seattle “has control weaknesses that put it at risk for cheating scandals.”
The audit didn’t look at Beacon Hill specifically, but found that test booklets were being kept at schools for four to five weeks during the testing period and that too many people had access to them. The audit recommended shortening the time the booklets are at the schools and restricting access to fewer employees.