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Suspicious Test Results At Seattle Elementary Thrown Out As State, District Investigate

Carol VanHook

Washington state education officials have thrown out all standardized test scores at Seattle's Beacon Hill International School after a review found "heavy erasures" in the test booklets, district officials said in a letter to the school's parents and staff Tuesday.

State officials think "the test responses were altered in such a way as to significantly increase total scores," Interim Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Larry Nyland wrote in his letter.

High numbers of the erasure marks made from students changing wrong answers to right ones could indicate cheating, according to education experts. That said, there can also be legitimate, innocent explanations for these stray marks.

Credit Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction
The median student growth percentile at Beacon Hill International School — a measure of how much a student's standardized test scores increased compared to how other schools of similar ability fared — increased markedly in 2014. Most schools, the state noted, log a median growth percentile between 25 and 75.

  'Above Growth Observed By Any School'

Though test scores at the K-5 school had shown improvements in recent years, Seattle Public Schools officials alerted state officials after they noticed an unusually high jump in scores between 2013 and 2014.

"This just stuck out as something pretty unusual," said district spokeswoman Stacy Howard.

A state analysis showed the school's "median student growth percentile" — a measure the state uses to show how well a student performed in comparison to other students at similar ability levels — was 95 for math in 2014 — a huge spike from a score of 70 the year before. Nearly all schools notch between 25 and 75.

Beacon Hill's median student growth percentile in reading was also abnormally high. Its mark of 96 was "considerably above growth observed by any school in 2012-13," the state analysis noted.

"Their test scores had been improving over the last few years anyway, which is great news, but this jump was so high that we had to look into it," Howard said.

'We Support Our Beacon Hill Students, Staff And Teachers'

According to a U.S. Department of Education white paper, "all machine-scored, multiple choice tests can be scanned to identify the presence of a second mark on an answer sheet in response to an item. This second mark often indicates that a student erased and changed his or her answer."

Though the paper's authors note "an unusually high number of wrong-to-right erasures can be an indicator of testing irregularities," it's also possible even an unusual pattern of erasure marks are the result of innocent, "legitimate test-taking strategies."

As Nyland wrote in his letter to Beacon Hill parents, staff members and all Seattle school principals, the district has hired an outside investigator to determine what happened.

"In the meantime, I want the public to know that we support our Beacon Hill students, staff and teachers," Nyland wrote.

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.