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State officials express doubt about cheating study

March 26, 2012

Rhode Island’s Education Commissioner Deborah Gist says she thinks widespread cheating is unlikely in The Ocean State. The comment came in response to a study by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that raised flags about standardized test scores in four Rhode Island school districts and 200 districts nationwide.

The Rhode Island districts found to have “suspicious” fluctuations in test scores were Providence, East Providence, Woonsocket and Coventry. Gist says the state will review data from those districts, “but we have no reason to suspect any incident of testing irregularity in recent test administrations in Rhode Island.”

Providence school officials say they are still reviewing the study to decide whether it merits further investigation. The newspaper found that 11 percent of Providence classes had suspicious score swings in 2011. Thirteen percent of the district’s classes raised questions in 2008.

According to the study, an average district can expect to see fluctuations in roughly 5 percent of classes for a typical year, but the paper suggests that score swings in 10 percent of classes or more deserve a deeper look.

Other Rhode Island districts with significant score increases and/or decreases between 2008 and 2011:

  • East Providence– 10 percent of classes flagged in 2008, 12.5 percent in 2009
  • Woonsocket– 29 percent of classes flagged in 2008
  • Coventry– 14 percent of classes flagged in 2009

While the study does not definitively prove that any cheating occurred, it reveals patterns similar those Atlanta, where tampering did occur. Rhode Island officials say they are confident that is not the case in Rhode Island.

“In each instance, the variation was either a single-year event or not part of a consistent pattern of variations,” Education Commissioner Deborah Gist said of the districts flagged in Rhode Island. “We have full confidence in the honesty and integrity of the educators and students in Rhode Island.”

Critics are already raising questions about the Atlanta Journal-Constitution study.  Writing in the Washington Post, one researcher cites problems with the methodology, which does not account for changes in school populations from one year to the next.

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