As thousands of Minnesota students tackle state tests this month, education officials say they have strong protocols in place to prevent cheating, as well as plans to increase security even further as more tests move online.

The pressure to cheat is significant, and it’s felt as much by teachers as students. Across the country, test scores are increasingly influencing school funding and the evaluation and pay of teachers and administrators. Just last month, criminal charges were filed against 35 educators in Atlanta for allegedly tampering with test results.

That cheating scandal and several others were uncovered when erasure marks on paper tests were analyzed for unusually high numbers of wrong-to-right answers. The Minnesota Department of Education ended that practice, known as erasure analysis, in 2009.

Current department officials say they aren’t sure why erasure analysis was discontinued but added that they believe it is not the best way to identify cheating, especially since more Minnesota students are taking standardized tests on computers.

“Erasure analysis does not necessarily indicate wrongdoing,” said Jennifer Dugan, the department’s top testing official. “It indicates more investigation might be warranted.”

While the department occasionally will invalidate tests, it never has unearthed evidence of widespread cheating in Minnesota.

That’s because teachers and administrators do a good job of making sure cheating never happens in the first place, Dugan said. Minnesota educators follow the state’s detailed testing protocol plan, which addresses everything from cellphone use to posters in the classroom, she said.

Providing additional oversight are 15 department monitors who make unannounced visits to schools where students are taking their Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, which measure students’ performance in reading, math and science. The MCAs are being administered now through mid-May.

“I think we’ve been very proactive,” Dugan said. “We’ve been very clear with teachers and administrators about what’s right and wrong. That’s really where our emphasis has been.”

Some large school districts, like Minneapolis public schools, also analyze test scores to look for irregularities like certain student groups making large gains or losses over a short period of time.

“The vast majority of people in schools are very sensitive to the issue [of test security],” said Dave Heistad, Bloomington public schools’ director of research, evaluation and assessment, who used to work for the Minneapolis School District.

The state Education Department recently hired someone to help strengthen the state’s testing protocols. One of that person’s responsibilities, Dugan said, will be to develop a statistical analysis to review online test results.

Security survived snag

Currently, about 90 percent of all Minnesota students take their MCA math tests online, and all students take the science test online. Those tests are adaptive, meaning the questions change in response to the student’s answers. About 40 percent of students in third through eighth grade and 30 percent of sophomores take the reading test online.

On Wednesday, about 15,000 students were taking the math test online when the testing contractor’s computer server slowed down to the point where many couldn’t log on or had trouble saving their answers.

Jon Cohen, executive vice president of American Institutes for Research (AIR), Minnesota’s testing vendor, said the problem was an isolated event and that security was not breached when the servers stalled.

He said the Washington, D.C.-based company has several protocols already in place to thwart online cheating. For example, AIR monitors who signs on to the system and when the login occurs, he said. Should a teacher, administrator or student access the system during a time outside the normal window of testing, an alert would be issued.

Online adaptive tests, Cohen added, make it inherently more difficult for students to cheat because every test contains different questions.

“Because kids are seeing different items, they can’t really discuss the test on the playground and compare notes,” he said.

Too many tests?

Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, said states that really want to discourage cheating should remove the main motivation to do so — high-stakes tests.

Since the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001, student test scores have increasingly influenced school funding and teacher evaluations.

It’s no coincidence, Schaeffer said, that more educators have been caught cheating.

“People in schools have a strong incentive to look the other way, to make problems disappear,” Schaeffer said.

In Minnesota, there is a legislative push to do away with the GRAD assessment, the test seniors must pass to graduate, and replace it with an exam that measures college readiness. Proponents — including Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius and the state teachers union — say the current test does very little other than to create anxiety for students, parents and educators.

“Testing should be about providing information back to the teacher, and to the student and to the parents about what’s happening,” Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher said. “When you do these high-stakes tests, it creates other layers where human weakness can come into play no matter how many safeguards you ultimately impose.”