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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Saturday, April 9, 2005

'Cheating' probe halts Wai'anae school tests

By Treena Shapiro
Advertiser Education Writer

The Department of Education has halted standardized testing at Wai'anae Intermediate School and launched an investigation after learning that eighth-graders apparently were given some test questions and answers in preparation for the high-stakes exams, schools superintendent Pat Hamamoto said yesterday.

Pat Hamamoto

Some of the school's eighth-graders may have to retake some or all portions of the test, depending on what investigators learn, Hamamoto said.

So far, it appears to be an isolated incident, Hamamoto said, but officials moved quickly yesterday to ensure that the apparent security lapse would not taint test results statewide.

Hamamoto said she notified the Board of Education and alerted all complex-area superintendents and had them contact all principals.

"We can't afford to compromise the Hawai'i State Assessment," Hamamoto said. "If they hear of anything, have knowledge or suspect there has been cheating, they are to notify me immediately."

Hamamoto said she knows there has been a lot of talk about how difficult the tests are, as well as the possibility they may be too hard.

"We know that when tests get rigid and tests get difficult, these things occur, but that doesn't make it acceptable," she said. "It's unacceptable. Cheating in any form on the HSA is unacceptable."

Elten Lau, Wai'anae Intermediate's testing coordinator, said the school was already doing an internal investigation after teachers complained about review sheets they were given to help prep students immediately before taking the tests.

In light of their concerns, he sent out a school-wide e-mail on Wednesday — the day after the review sheets were distributed — telling teachers to set the sheets aside and do their own test preparations while administrators looked into the source of the questions.

"Some concerns were brought up and we didn't want to be inappropriate about it," he said.

Lau said he was uncertain of the source of the review sheets.

This is the first time that cheating has been alleged in Hawai'i on the test, which measures whether students are up to grade-level standards in reading and math.

If schools do not demonstrate "adequate yearly progress" on the state tests, they can face

sanctions under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Wai'anae Intermediate is one of 24 schools undergoing a state takeover after missing AYP for several years.

In Texas, education officials are investigating whether some schools may have helped their students cheat on that state's standardized tests.

The allegations involving Wai'anae Intermediate came from an anonymous school employee who contacted The Advertiser by mail and said that homeroom teachers were given review sheets with questions taken word for word from the 2005 test, which schools have been taking since last month.

"On the inside of the very first page of every test booklet, it states that anything close to this type of preparation is strictly forbidden and that anyone who knows about it must report it," the letter said.

The letter said the review sheets were "typed up, reproduced and handed out by representatives of the administration, not by a classroom teacher."

It was signed, "Concerned about Reprisal, Waianae Intermediate School Employee."

Hamamoto said the DOE began investigating immediately after hearing the complaint and stopped all testing at the school after finding the review sheets did contain actual test questions.

"We caught it and it was stopped," she said yesterday. The next step is going into the school to determine exactly how and why the questions were distributed.

The review sheets contained 12 questions from one section of the assessment. The sections range in length, up to about 30 questions. Robert McClelland, DOE planning and evaluation director, said it was hard to determine how much of an advantage knowing a dozen answers beforehand would have, but "it could potentially increase their scores fairly significantly."

It was unclear if other review sheets were distributed for other sections of the tests.

While no one should have looked at any of the questions before the test was administered, administrators and teachers would have had the opportunity to do so, said Lau, of Wai'anae Intermediate.

"Is it possible that someone had prior knowledge to the questions? Yes, it is," Lau said.

The allegations of cheating come as a blow to the school, which had expected higher test scores just on the basis of regular preparation. "We have the most dedicated teaching staff and administration," Lau said. "We already had a feeling (scores would improve). There is really no benefit in us cheating."

"Although we have this pressure for our students to be successful, cheating on a test ... would prove nothing to anyone, except that we could work the system," he said.

Elaine Christian, principal at Hilo Intermediate, another school being taken over by the state, said the pressure of meeting AYP has become a priority for all schools. "Unfortunately, because of that pressure I can see something like this happening," she said. "It's a real struggle. You're being judged on the fact that you're a restructured school."

Hilo Intermediate's test preparation, outside of regular class instruction, is limited to the practice test developed by the DOE and the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a standardized test that gives eighth-graders a feel for what the HSA will be like.

Other allowable means of helping students prepare include giving tips on how to answer certain types of questions and providing examples of the types of reading passages they may see, said McClelland, the DOE's planning and evaluation director. But never should students be given actual questions from the test, a violation of test administration protocol. "Testing would certainly never approve that," he said.

Hamamoto said she did not know whether the review sheets at Wai'anae Intermediate would lead to anyone's dismissal. It will depend on what the investigation turns up.

It is possible the sheets were created with good intentions of helping the students feel comfortable while taking the test.

"Sometimes teachers may feel they're helping out the kid, making sure they know this fact," she said. "It might not have been done on purpose to cheat."

Reach Treena Shapiro at tshapiro@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8014.