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National Perspective | COMMUNITY

Test Cheating Scandal Leaves Town Unable to Fill in the Blanks

Someone at a Cody, Wyo., school switched pupils' answers on a standardized exam. Tales of set-ups and payoffs abound.

August 10, 2000|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CODY, Wyo. — The meeting room was jammed. Some parents had dashed in during their lunch hour. Others stopped off in between errands. Many clutched folders stuffed with petitions and newspaper clippings. Men and women unable to find seats stood against the walls, arms crossed.

This was not just any meeting of the Cody school board. How could it be, given the recent odd events at nearby Eastside Elementary: the principal's abrupt resignation, followed by a rapid retraction and, then, the board's eager acceptance of his latest resignation letter.

Then there was the matter of the altered tests. More than half the national standardized exams taken by Eastside's first-, second- and third-graders last spring had been tampered with. Someone had meticulously corrected the children's answers, causing such a remarkable one-year improvement--from a 42nd-percentile national ranking to 87th in one particular class--as to arouse suspicions. All the scores have been declared invalid, pending further investigation by the testing company, CTB/McGraw-Hill.

Oh, and the state assessment tests. Taken by the fourth-graders. Lost by Federal Express en route to another testing company. Last seen somewhere in New Hampshire.

Altered Test Scandal First in the State

So it was that a good bit of Eastside's ability to measure its students' progress has been lost. By hook or by crook.

Tiny Cody--once home to the famed bison killer William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody--now has come to be known as the state's cheater town. And Eastside has gained the dubious honor of being the first school in Wyoming to be involved in a scandal involving altered tests.

Which brings us to the not-so-average meeting, where this town's school board members recently came face to face with irate parents.

What boiled to the surface when the two sides squared off were intimations of class discrimination, charges of pressure to boost test scores and a lack of concern that a clever but high-minded criminal remains at large.

The ruckus has caused many parents to wonder aloud whether they want to send their children back to Eastside when school starts at the end of the month.

The town's gossip mill has been churning out scenarios to explain the cheating scandal. Current favorites include a vindictive set-up and tales of teachers being paid off to improve test scores.

Vivian McCord, who sat through an exasperating half-hour of the meeting, can't help but wonder what might be next.

"Before this," said the mother of two, "the biggest problem at the school was people double-parking when they dropped off their kids. I can't believe this mess."

Eastside is the most economically and ethnically diverse of Cody's three elementary schools. (Or, as a school board member once publicly put it: The school is full of "trailer park trash.") According to statistics, about 30% of the schoolchildren in Wyoming are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. Many Eastside children fall into this category.

While the school's standardized test scores generally were low, scores also have been dropping around the state. Results from this year's Wyoming Comprehensive Assessment System (WyCAS) tests showed a decline from 1999. Among fourth-graders, for example, only 35% met or exceeded state standards in writing. And only 27% were proficient in math.

At Eastside, Principal Gene Grose's efforts had resulted in a gradual improvement in state and national test results. The school sent home letters stressing to parents the importance of the tests and urging kids to get a good night's sleep and a sturdy breakfast in preparation. Mothers circulated through the school on test day, passing out muffins and snacks in classrooms where children toiled.

The national exams, known as Terra Nova tests, were administered at the end of March. When the results came back in June, the scores were amazing. The phone lines in Cody crackled with moms and dads giddily comparing stellar scores.

Not long after that, however, the bubble burst. News came from CTB/McGraw-Hill that at least 90 of the 180 tests completed by first- through third-graders showed signs of tampering.

"He's my son and I love him, but I couldn't believe that those were his scores," said McCord, whose second-grader's reading scores went from the 32nd percentile in 1999 to the 99th this year.

Grose resigned. The school board began an investigation. Then Grose withdrew his resignation, saying he had been pressured. He denied altering any tests.

According to Grose, only six people had access or the ability to change the test sheets. He defended his teachers and staff, saying they could not have perpetrated the crime. Late last month, the board issued a statement saying evidence of tampering by Grose was "not conclusive." It closed its investigation without naming a culprit.

The possible motive for such tampering is complicated.

Eastside already was on notice from the state Department of Education for failing to meet improvement goals for the WyCAS and Terra Nova tests.

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