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Two teachers allegedly helped students on FCAT

The test is used to determine a school's grade; a good grade could mean more state money.

By STEPHEN HEGARTY

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 9, 2000


Investigators in the Pinellas and Hillsborough County school districts are looking into allegations of cheating on the state's all-important FCAT test last month -- cheating not by students, but by teachers.

Neither investigation is complete. But the early indications are that both cases are serious enough to warrant some kind of discipline at the local level, as well as a report to the state for other possible penalties.

In both cases, the allegations involve an individual teacher and are limited to a single classroom. For instance, the Hillsborough County teacher has been accused of reading portions of the test to students and providing some answers.

The Pinellas case has been investigated, and is awaiting a review by Superintendent Howard Hinesley, who will make a recommendation. The teacher at Brooker Creek Elementary School has contacted a lawyer. The principal at Brooker Creek, in East Lake, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

"It's a question of whether they tried to intentionally give the students an advantage," said Ron Stone, spokesman for the Pinellas County school district.

Critics of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test say the problems are the inevitable result of high-stakes tests and a high-pressure testing climate.

"We see this wherever they have high-stakes tests," said Jade Moore, executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association. "We never saw people playing around with the old CTBS (a standardized test given by the school district) because -- so what? That was just a test to let you know how your kids are doing."

"I think we really have created a scenario where it's become so cutthroat," said Yvonne Lyons of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association. "The test determines the school's entire reputation."

Educators point out that, as rare as testing scandals are, during the testing season school districts routinely contend with rumors and accusations of cheating by students and teachers. Many of the rumors amount to little or nothing. It is too early to say whether there are more allegations this year, or whether the allegations are more serious than usual.

A state official estimated that in the past three years the state has investigated about eight to 10 cases of test security violations by teachers.

State officials are aware of the pressure on teachers. Last year the director of testing for the state sent out a memo to each school district offering practical guidance and ethical guidelines for testing. Director Tom Fisher said at the time that while the vast majority of educators are honest, he wanted to make sure that everyone knew the rules.

As he said, "I don't want anyone to be able to say, "We weren't told."'

National education news suggests he had reason to be concerned.

In Texas, a high-stakes testing state where schools earn rewards for good test scores and suffer sanctions for bad, a deputy superintendent in Austin was indicted last year on charges of tampering with test results to boost her district's scores.

In Houston, a principal and several teachers were asked to resign amid allegations that someone changed students' answers on the state test.

Other testing scandals have hit in East Hartford, Conn., Rhode Island and New York.

In Florida, the FCAT stakes are high and getting higher.

The tests taken in February help determine a school's A through F grade. A good score could result in extra money being awarded to a school, money that could result in bonuses for teachers.

A bad score could lead to a failing school label and vouchers for the children who attend the school.

The stakes are getting higher as teachers' evaluations and pay are being tied to their students' academic performance.

"If you think people might cheat because they want their school to look good, wait till their evaluations and their salaries are on the line," Moore said.

Violations of test security are considered a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and up to 90 days in jail. During last year's legislative session there was an effort to stiffen the penalty and make it a felony, but it failed.

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