State to contact schools about test erasures

July 18, 2011

Local school officials will be given details this week about the state Department of Education’s three-year investigation into high percentages of erasure marks on student standardized tests, a department spokesman said.

One local adminstrator said Monday he was surprised that the education department was looking into his district to see how many times wrong answers were erased and changed to correct ones on the tests.

“If there was an irregularity, we would have been contacted” by the state, Toms River Regional Assistant Superintendent William Cardone said. “There is no indication whatsoever that anything is wrong.”

The Asbury Park Press reported Saturday that 54 schools, including five in Monmouth and Ocean counties, had a higher than expected erasure rates on state-mandated tests last year for grades 3 through 8. No school has been accused of cheating, but the education department said it is still investigating the matter.

A high percentage of erasures has been an indication of cheating in other districts around the country. Investigators in Atlanta, for example, found that teachers and administrators routinely changed wrong answers to correct answers, or just gave students the correct answers during tests as far back as 2001.

Standardized tests are used to measure whether districts are meeting federal benchmarks under the No Child Left Behind law, and schools can receive or lose thousands of dollars a year in aid depending on test scores.

Justin Barra, a spokesman for the New Jersey education department, said the department plans to contact school districts to discuss its investigation, which he said is one of several methods used to investigate possible test cheating.

“This is just one piece of a puzzle that we are trying to put together,” Barra said. The department reviews the erasure reports along with other slices of data to look for any cases of potential wrongdoing, he said.

For example, Barra said the department regularly investigates individual tips about cheating on tests. More than 40 have been received since January, he said.

“We take allegations of any kind of cheating or tampering very seriously,” Barra said.

The Asbury Park Press and New Jersey Press Media Group successfully sued to get test erasure reports from the education department.

Wrong-to-right erasure rates more than 25 percent above the statewide average are classified by the education department as high.

Statewide, 58 percent of test erasures involved changing an incorrect answer to a correct one in 2008. In 2009, the figure was 57 percent, while in 2010, it was 59 percent.

The two local schools noted in the report were Ocean Road Elementary in Point Pleasant and Cedar Grove Elementary in the Toms River Regional District. Ocean Road's wrong-to-right erasure rate was 72 percent higher than normal and Cedar Grove was 77 percent above average.

Point Pleasant Superintendent Vincent S. Smith could not be reached for comment Monday.