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Iowa Watchdog

Iowa schools can’t prevent test cheating


DES MOINES – Iowa’s education leaders say they’re serious about cheating on state reading and math tests.

But when it comes to preventative measures, the state could use some remedial education, according to officials at the Iowa Department of Education.

NO CONSISTENCY: Iowa lacks statewide safeguards to prevent cheating on state exams.

NO CONSISTENCY: Iowa lacks statewide safeguards to prevent cheating on state exams.

Districts aren’t required to keep records of the chain of custody of exams, hire testing monitors or keep records of which teachers administered tests to individual students. The state has never hired an outside contractor to screen test results for abnormalities, or required schools to maintain seating charts. Officials at the state education department, in fact, never see students’ answer sheets. Instead, they are destroyed, said spokeswoman Staci Hupp.

Additionally, teachers are able to give their own students the tests, which are used to judge a school’s performance under No Child Left Behind. When schools don’t meet achievement targets, they face sanctions that range from offering tutoring to replacing the principal and teachers. Teachers are not given other incentives — such as job security and more pay — to produce better test scores.

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“We have a responsibility as a state to maintain the integrity of testing systems,” said Jason Glass, director of the Iowa Department of Education. “But, in Iowa, it’s between the districts and testing companies. It does limit our ability to proactively screen for this behavior.”

“I have advocated from the day I came to Iowa that the testing system needs to be improved. We haven’t made any progress on that.

“It requires legislative action,” he added.

The state does require those who administer tests to sign assurances they will follow testing protocols and give the tests with integrity, Glass said. Those letters are then reviewed during state accreditation visits, which take place every five years.

A majority of states oversee and implement safety measures and monitor districts at the state level. Without that oversight, schools are more vulnerable to cheating, experts say.

Weaknesses in Iowa’s oversight of state exams were thrust into the spotlight earlier this year when a cheating scandal at one of Davenport School District’s elementary schools came to light by district officials.

An internal investigation found unusually high erasures on the exams of third- through fifth-graders at Madison Elementary School. The changes boosted the school’s reading scores increase from about 60 percent proficiency to more than 90 percent. Officials were not able to identify who altered the tests, Davenport Superintendent Arthur Tate said.

Iowa leaves it up to individual districts to adopt their own security measures. Davenport had those giving students the exams sign a sheet of assurances. The exams were also kept in locked areas, although multiple people had keys to access the room where they were stored, Tate said.

“Did we have sufficient safeguards?” Tate said. “We felt pretty good that we did.”

Next year, the district will require schools to lock the tests in a room with only one key. Beyond that, they will follow the state’s protocols, Tate said.

“If allegation are made regarding the integrity of tests, we address them,” Hupp wrote in a survey outlining the state’s testing procedures. “However, the Iowa Department of Education has no staff or appropriation to handle state-level test security measures. If the Legislature feels it is important for Iowa schools to have tighter test security measures, we will implement them.”

Contact Sheena Dooley at Sheena Dooley is the Iowa bureau chief for, where this story first appeared.

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