ST. PAUL - Schools in St. Paul and Cannon Falls threw out dozens of Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments results this spring because of cheating by teachers assigned to monitor the standardized tests, according to state Department of Education reports.
At St. Paul’s Linwood Monroe Elementary, the department found, 21 seventh-graders had their math scores invalidated after the exam proctor gave students “direct prompting and direction on test items while they took the test.” The teacher was placed on administrative leave, but the district wouldn’t comment on any further discipline.
In Cannon Falls, the school district tossed the scores of 26 fifth-graders after a teacher admitted she helped them find the right answers by writing on their scratch paper, defining math terms and telling them what type of problem they were working on. The teacher, a 16-year veteran, resigned.
“We take state assessment extremely seriously,” Cannon Falls Superintendent Beth Giese said. “Teachers can’t do that.”
The two cases are among 91 reports of suspected test security violations submitted to the Department of Education during the 2014-15 school year. The department released the reports in response to a Pioneer Press records request.
Most of the submissions concerned the online MCA math or reading tests, which don’t affect students’ grades but are used to evaluate the quality of schools and their teachers. But reports also came in on the Optional Local Purpose Assessments - a warm-up for the MCA - and the GRAD graduation test that is being phased out.
Only a handful of the security notices, typically submitted by school districts’ assessment coordinators, suggested intentional cheating by proctors or students.
Much more common was the sort of student mischief that might seem harmless but which state education officials say threatens the validity of the assessments.
There were 17 cases of students using cellphones to listen to music, to receive texts, to take photos or for other reasons.
Students aren’t allowed to carry cellphones during testing, yet several managed to post MCA test material to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat this spring.
Aside from a student at St. Paul’s Hmong College Prep who was caught Googling information for a test question, the reports indicate students used phones for more frivolous reasons.
- At Nevis Secondary, a student shot video of the divider screen and keyboard during an MCA math test, then shared it on Snapchat with a comment “that said something like it is dumb they need to take this test for three hours,” records show.
- At Kenwood Trail Middle School in Lakeville, a girl who was allowed to test in a storage space took a selfie with a test question and shared it with friends on Snapchat.
- At Cass Lake-Bena Area Learning Center, an 11th-grader posted on Instagram a photo of the first question on her math MCA.
Whatever the students’ intentions, when a test question gets out, it can’t be used again.
“The student may not be using it for their individual gain, but we have to protect the state’s investment in the test questions,” said Jennifer Dugan, the Education Department’s director of research and assessment.
Testing companies share those concerns. Pearson, which administers the MCAs, sparked a student privacy debate this spring after flagging a New Jersey student’s tweet that included test material. The company said it routinely monitors social media to maintain test security.
It’s unclear whether Pearson was involved with any of Minnesota’s test security notices, but most of the records show test proctors were the ones who caught students using phones.
Historically, Minnesota has focused on strong policies and training to ensure the validity of its standardized tests. But the state could be ready to take on a more active role in sniffing out cheating and sloppiness in test administration.
Dugan said a committee of state and national test industry representatives began meeting last October to identify strengths and vulnerabilities of Minnesota’s test policies and procedures.
“The part that we’re grappling with the most,” she said, has been cellphones and social media.
Dugan said the group also has discussed whether the state should continue to allow school districts to effectively police themselves on test security. The Department of Education urges districts to report suspected test security violations and sometimes asks for additional documentation, but it doesn’t do its own investigations.
Dugan said there also has been discussion about checking tests for patterns of answers that suggest cheating, as many states already do.
“We really have focused on the front end - the prevention, the education, an effort to create the correct culture, and really talking about the importance of the validity of the test scores,” Dugan said.
The committee is expected to release its recommendations this month.
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service