08/31/2011 11:15 am ET Updated Oct 31, 2011

Budget Cuts Force California To Pull Back On Anti-Cheating Efforts

This article comes to us courtesy of California Watch.

By Corey G. Johnson

Only after the governor ordered an independent examination did Georgia officials catch widespread cheating by teachers, principals and administrators on standardized tests in the Atlanta Public Schools system.

The resulting scandal has sparked resignations, a criminal investigation and a wave of other state inquiries into possible test tampering.

The sleuthing techniques used to catch testing fraud in Atlanta — monitoring test score data for dramatic spikes, analysis of testing erasures and on-the-ground interviews — used to be commonplace at the California Department of Education.

Starting in 1996, a robust state team of examiners routinely analyzed reams of testing material looking for cheaters and conducted between 150-200 audits a year.

But that changed in 2009, when the forensic team was hit with $105,000 in budget cuts. In response, state education department officials stopped collecting data on erasures and halted all field visits that ensured testing procedures were followed. Further, a request to restore the funds was rejected this year by the Department of Finance, said John Boivin, an administrator with the education department.

So the state is left with no choice but to rely on local school districts to voluntarily report instances of cheating — a standard that didn't expose the type of systemic fraud currently sparking outrage in Atlanta.

The less stringent oversight comes as school administrators face strong temptation to cheat.

In the last two years alone, California districts self-reported 112 investigations of cheating allegations, a USA Today investigation found. In July, the Los Angeles Unified School District's Board of Education voted to shut down two charter schools in response to allegations that the schools' founder ordered principals and teachers to use actual test questions to prepare students for the 2010 state standardized tests. Voice of San Diego found testing irregularities at the Chula Vista Elementary, Poway Unified and San Diego Unified school districts.

What's the cause of the unethical behavior? The answer is multiple and inconclusive. But some experts blame the cheating on the federal No Child Left Behind law and the push for education reform.

Schools with poor test scores can face closure or a dramatic loss of funds. Districts also face pressure from lawmakers and education reformers to re-evaluate teacher pay based on student test scores.

So as state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson is posed today to discuss this year's accountability results, the question looms: How much faith can we have that the scores are accurate?

John Fremer, testing forensics expert at Caveon Test Security, which has helped Atlanta and Washington, D.C., investigate suspicious incidents, told KPPC radio that testing students without a detailed check of results can't be considered credible.

"You're not going to be able to run a state testing program without doing comprehensive analyses of the results," he said. "I mean that ship has already sailed."

Corey Johnson is an investigative reporter for California Watch, a project of the non-profit Center for Investigative Reporting. Find more California Watch stories here.