Documents suggest teacher cheating scandal at Indiana H.S.
The Indiana Department of Education is now investigating a major breach in ISTEP test security. The key evidence points to teachers at one of the state's largest high schools, and it comes from 13 Investigates.
Bob Segall/13 Investigates
INDIANAPOLIS - Documents delivered to WTHR are now at the center of a cheating investigation involving one of Indiana's largest high schools.
In the world of education, some of the documents are considered top secret. They include 138 test questions from the state of Indiana's Biology ECA, better known as an End of Course Assessment exam.
The questions are supposed to be confidential, but they were delivered to 13 Investigates, exposing what now appears to be a cheating scandal at North Central High School in Indianapolis.
"Who did what when? How many students were involved?" asked Wes Bruce, chief assessment officer for the Indiana Department of Education, after looking over documentation provided by WTHR. "It's completely unethical behavior."
The Biology ECA is one of three end-of-year ISTEP exams that Indiana high school students are required to take before graduation. Students must pass the state's Algebra and English ECAs in order to get their diplomas. Passing the Biology ECA is not required for graduation, but student scores on the biology test do help determine a high school's overall letter grade from IDOE. The test scores also play a factor in teacher evaluations and salaries.
According to a tip to Eyewitness News, a science teacher at North Central copied ECA questions and answers by looking over students' shoulders while they took the biology tests in 2009 and 2010. That teacher then distributed the questions to other North Central teachers, who used them to help prepare students for last year's exam. A copy of those questions was delivered to WTHR.
North Central, which boasts the third largest high school enrollment in Indiana, saw a 20% improvement in its Biology ECA test scores in 2011. While many other schools around the state saw a similar improvement, the 2011 scores at North Central are now under serious scrutiny.
"On each page of the [ECA] test it says ‘do not reproduce or discuss the contents of this test,' Bruce said. "If these questions [provided by WTHR] are items on the test, then we've got the potential that student scores need to be invalidated because it's not a representation of what students know. It's a representation of somebody manipulating the test. How does that help a student?"
Bruce oversees the administration and security of all of Indiana's ISTEP and ECA exams. He says the apparent breach in test security at North Central is "a huge violation of state board rules" because most of Indiana's ECA test questions are re-used for multiple years.
IDOE has confirmed some of the leaked test questions were on the 2011 Biology ECA and are also on this year's biology test, which students across Indiana are taking right now.
"There's no excuse for this," Bruce said, shaking his head.
He's also upset about other documents that a whistleblower delivered to 13 Investigates.
They are internal e-mails and staff notes from North Central High School. They show a North Central science teacher was assigned the task of bringing ECA test questions to a staff meeting of science teachers in August 2010. That teacher later promised to "e-mail everyone" a copy of the questions.
"It's clearly not the actions of just one individual," Bruce said, looking at the notes and e-mails provided by 13 Investigates. "That shows a lot more planning in terms of trying to game the system and cheat children." Bruce said this is the first case he is aware of in which ISTEP cheating was brought to IDOE's attention by the media.
Cheating at other schools too
North Central High School is not alone.
Eyewitness News has found cases of teachers cheating on standardized tests all over the state – at least 15 reported cases in the just the past year alone.
Some of the cheating happened during testing for third graders, and several cases resulted in teachers resigning or being fired.
"No one expects us to forgive or not have consequences for someone who flat out cheats," said Ken Hull, superintendent of schools in Speedway.
Hull is careful to point out has not seen any teacher cheating in Speedway. But during his 30+ years in education, he admits he has seen it personally in other places.
"That just cannot be allowed, because you know who the victim is? [It's] the kids. That kind of gross error in judgment and that kind of conduct means the student who took the test and put the time in to study, their responses are in question."
Despite situations like the one now being investigated at North Central, IDOE says incidents of teacher cheating are very rare.
"It's a very small minority of misguided individuals who are doing these things," Bruce said.
But it may not be as rare as state officials think.
Behind the numbers
This month, Eyewitness News surveyed teachers all across the state. Nearly 2,000 teachers took WTHR's unscientific survey, and 11% of them – one in nine teachers – said they know of another teacher in their school district who has cheated on standardized tests.
"I'm disappointed but not I'm not totally surprised," said Theresa Meredith, vice president of the Indiana State Teacher's Association, which sent the WTHR survey to its members.
Meredith, who is also a longtime elementary school teacher in Shelby County, believes teachers are now required to spend far too much time focused on state mandated tests. She says those tests carry too much weight for teachers, students and schools.
"Most teachers are not opposed to standardized tests and we do believe in accountability," she said. "But the state's focus on testing is too much and there's too much at stake. We're talking about the teacher's evaluation, the teacher's pay, whether a school continues to exist. I do not condone cheating in any way, but there is pressure, tremendous pressure."
A teacher with 36 years of classroom experience described to Eyewitness News her recurring nightmares, waking in the middle of the night fearful that her third-grade students did not pass their ISTEP English exams.
"I'm on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and it's because of all these tests," she said. "They do have some merits, but they exclude the fun, exciting, creative learning for children. [The state] is telling me what to teach, when to teach and how to teach it. I am a better teacher than this. I am better than what all these mandates are allowing me to be."
The teacher asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation by her school district and IDOE, but she did write WTHR a lengthy letter to elaborate her concerns. The following is a passage from that letter:
"In order to measure our effectiveness, each school is constantly administering an endless variety of tests, M-Class, Acuity, I-Read, I-Mast, and the granddaddy of them all, ISTEP. We collect the data, chart the achievement and growth of each child on each skill, issue report after report, analyze score after score, standard after standard. After each test comes the REPORT in living color where you can see how you measure up against other teachers, other grades, other schools. Woe is the teacher who falls behind. The number of students, the home life of students, the motivation of students, or the behavior of students doesn't matter. We've been told there are no excuses, and we also know that this will be recorded on the DOE website for all to see… If they would just leave me alone and let me teach. The reality is that many excellent teachers for whom teaching is a passion are simply tired and leaving the profession. What a shame!"
IDOE says ECA and ISTEP exams are simply designed to show whether students are comprehending state-mandated core subject material – not to mandate how they teach.
"I don't doubt that there are some individuals that may feel pressure," Bruce said. "But if a teacher is teaching to the standards, students should do well on the exams."
Overwhelmed and anxious
At Anderson High School, teachers say they started planning for ECA exams last summer and have spent every single school day getting students ready for their year-end standardized tests.
"A big significant part of our grade is based literally on standardized test scores, and we know that," said Ellen Finney-Pickett, a social studies teacher who is helping Anderson High School implement a year-round 8-Step program to improve ISTEP test scores. "So we have focused our school calendars, what we're teaching, when we're teaching, how we're teaching it. We have designed our entire school day [to prepare students for the exams]. We're tired. We're exhausted. We're overwhelmed to some extent, but we're here every day doing the best job we can for the kids."
Some students at Anderson High School told WTHR they were anxious about their upcoming ECA exams. Helping kids deal with their anxiety is often the responsibility of teachers, like Paul Partezana.
The ninth grade English teacher wrote and performed an ISTEP rap song last week for hundreds of Anderson High School students on the day before they began taking their ECA tests.
"I want every kid to succeed and I'll do anything I can to help that happen," said Partezana.
But who is helping teachers deal with their anxiety over Indiana's high-stakes standardized tests?
At many schools, the answer is nobody.
Teachers say, sometimes, the stress and anxiety contribute to bad decisions – even decisions to cheat.
"Teachers have mortgages. They have families. They're caring for elderly parents. They have health issues and their job, they've got to have their job!" said Partezana. "So it's not like I'm justifying what they've done, but I think a lot of them felt panicked. A lot is at stake."
Penalties could be harsh
Right now, the stakes couldn't be higher at North Central High School.
IDOE and Washington Township Schools have started their own investigations following the leak of Biology ECA test questions.
Based on the outcome of those investigations, one or more teachers could be suspended or fired.
IDOE could take action against the school.
"If test results have been manipulated in a school for a number of years, their accreditation status, their grades … all of that's open to our actions based on the investigation," Bruce told 13 Investigates, adding that the State Superintendent of Schools could take additional action against individual teachers.
"The ultimate penalty is the loss of your credential. You're no longer a teacher in Indiana," he said.
IDOE also says student test scores on the ECA biology exam might be invalidated. It is unclear which scores could be affected, since the security breach involves questions that appeared on the Biology ECA in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012.
IDOE spokeswoman Stephanie Sample told WTHR a decision regarding the invalidation of test scores will likely be made within the next month, although the state's full investigation might take longer.
13 Investigates gave IDOE a copy of the Biology ECA questions that were delivered to WTHR. To help protect the integrity of the state's Biology ECA, Eyewitness News has not – and will not – be sharing the test questions with anyone else.
North Central High School principal Evans Branigan declined WTHR's request for an interview, explaining that all interview requests must be directed to the superintendent of Washington Township Schools. Superintendent Nikki Woodson has not returned multiple phone calls from 13 Investigates. A school district spokeswoman said Washington Township Schools are cooperating fully with IDOE but offered no other comment.
WTHR has repeatedly requested an interview with Indiana Superintendent of Schools Dr. Tony Bennett for this report. IDOE has declined those requests, stating the superintendent has been too busy over the past two weeks to meet with 13 Investigates or provide a comment.
Teachers say when it comes to standardized testing and cheating, there is much more you need to know. Tuesday morning, 13 Investigates will be releasing the results of our exclusive statewide teacher survey. You can see it first at 5 a.m. on Eyewitness News Sunrise, with more results throughout the day on WTHR and right here at WTHR.com.