CT Cheating Case Reveals Test Mania

K-12 Testing

The uproar over alleged cheating at a Connecticut school has exposed some of the fallout from the overuse of tests. Psychological trauma to students, community anger and recriminations, and the specter of declining property values have all emerged from the cheating scandal. While attention has focused on the alleged cheating, the situation clearly shows why testing must be de-emphasized.


The case involves the Stratfield School, one of the three elementary schools in Fairfield, Connecticut, that serve a middle to upper-middle class population. While all three have high test scores, for years Stratfield s scores have been exceptionally high on both the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) and the Connecticut Mastery Tests (CMT).


In an effort to discover why Stratfield does so well, so that its efforts could be replicated, the Fairfield school department examined actual student answer sheets. Surprised to detect what seemed to be a very high erasure rate, they asked Riverside Publishers, makers of the ITBS, to investigate. Riverside found an erasure rate over three times that of the other two schools. They also found an 89% rate of changing wrong answers to right ones, compared with around 75% at the other schools.


Students at all three Fairfield schools were then retested under strict supervision. The scores and numbers of changed answers declined at Stratfield to the range of the two other schools. Riverside concluded there was conclusive evidence of tampering.


However, one investigator now studying the case suggests that the evidence may not be so conclusive. On the parts of the retest that were the same subtest as the initial test, the erasure rates and changes from wrong to right were nearly as high, suggesting that the students had learned unusually effective test-taking strategies.


In May, the story broke and soon reached national proportions, with television networks and major newspapers covering it. Private investigators were hired to find the perpetrators (thus far, none have been found), and the state launched an investigation to determine whether there was cheating on the CMT.


Parents at Stratfield defended their school. Some charged that the district superintendent was fabricating data to discredit their principal. Others said cheating made no sense because the school had not strongly emphasized test scores but instead focused on other assessments, such as portfolios. Some parents argued that the high rate of erasures and corrections at Stratfield really was evidence that the students had learned to check and revise their work.


Some students at other schools reportedly called Stratfield students cheaters and exulted in their comeuppance. The emotional fever affected even young children. The New York Times reported on one student who apologized to his father for cheating, though as a second grader he did not even take the test.


The case provides more evidence of the influence test scores have on property values. A realtor told the Fairfield school board that parents moving to the area from other parts of the country were beginning to question the quality of the city s schools. One Stratfield parent has filed suit against Riverside, claiming that the cheating allegation has devalued his home. Nationally, high test scores have become the single most important gauge of school quality, which in turn heavily influences property values.


The Stratfield incident has led many reporters to inquire about the extent of cheating on tests and safeguards against it. Some surveys suggest around 10 of students cheat on standardized tests, though the definitions of cheating vary. Most test companies do not routinely check for things like unusual erasure patterns.


All in all, most of the attention has been on policing: How much cheating is there, and what can be done to prevent it? But the real questions should be: Why is there so much testing, and why do people care so much about the results? Why, for example, does Fairfield, with schools that are generally recognized as high quality, even bother with the ITBS?


The extreme reactions in this case, from distraught children to fearful homeowners, suggest that tests have attained an exaggerated status they do not deserve in education. The solution is not greater test security. The solution is less testing, fewer testing-based high stakes decisions, and better forms of assessment.