Twenty-two California schools had their test scores thrown out this year for reasons ranging from outright cheating to comparatively minor mistakes, such as failing to cover up bulletin boards or stumbling over instructions.
In most cases, schools or school districts turned themselves in. Because of budget cuts, the state Education Department no longer conducts random audits at schools or scans test booklets for irregularities.
Nearly half the campuses lost their Academic Performance Index scores because of cheating by teachers on the multiple-choice tests. Several others were penalized because of help teachers gave students that violated rules. Additionally, some school scores were rejected because of what appeared to be accidental actions.
There was even sabotage: Answers for 19 students at Jackson Avenue Elementary, in the Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District, were changed from right to wrong. If a discrepancy involves more than 5% of a school's students, the school doesn't receive a rating.
The API is an all-important scale by which schools are officially measured in California. Top rankings are celebrated and contribute to high property values. Low scores can label teachers and schools as failures and trigger penalties.
The number of schools with invalidated test scores remains relatively small but is edging upward. In 2003, no schools were disqualified for "adult irregularities." In 2007, 13 had scores rejected, and in 2009, the last year the state funded anti-cheating measures, 15 were tossed. In 2010, the number was 24. The state has more than 10,000 schools.
The Boston-based National Center for Fair & Open Testing recorded cheating in at least 30 states plus the District of Columbia over the last three years.
"Cheating by educators is unquestionably wrong," said the center's Bob Schaeffer, a critic of the growing reliance on standardized test data. "But it is a predictable consequence of the widespread misuse of test scores as the primary criteria to make high-stakes decisions."
Other experts blamed inadequate safeguards or out-of-date approaches to testing.
"Accountability always pressures employees to deliver results," said Rick Hess, an education specialist at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C. "Widespread cheating — whether it's steroids in baseball or false information in mortgage lending — usually is more a symptom of broken systems than an outbreak of venality."
In California, the work of policing has fallen to school districts. The Times obtained records of most irregularities from the state Education Department. Most districts cited employee privacy protections as a reason to disclose limited information.
In Los Angeles County, Short Avenue Elementary in Del Rey and Animo Leadership Charter High School in Inglewood received attention recently when they did not receive API scores.
Two other schools in L.A. County also lost their academic ratings: Graves Middle School and Kwis Elementary.
At Graves, in the South Whittier School District, an eighth-grade English teacher was accused of discussing vocabulary questions between portions of the test and urging students to correct wrong answers. Students reported the teacher, who is now subject to dismissal.
At Kwis, in the Hacienda La Puente Unified School District, a third-grade English teacher was accused of telling students to lightly mark answers, then checking them before having students darken the answer bubbles or try again. The district has protested the invalidation of the tests.
"We feel that it should receive the API," said Supt. Barbara Nakaoka, who declined to discuss details of the allegations. "We consider it a very high-performing school, and it has made progress over the years."
San Francisco Unified was the only school system to have two campuses disqualified. At Lakeshore Elementary, a teacher read part of a test passage aloud. At Cesar Chavez Elementary, students in one class called out several answers on the English test. On the math test, a proctor reported that the teacher in the same class "asked individual students if they were sure their answers were correct while pointing to their tests." The proctor added that "the teacher provided hints."
When confronted, the teacher "reported that the students were very needy and had many questions which made [the teacher] uncomfortable."
Some school districts don't budget for proctors. Even those that provide them typically spread them across a number of classrooms.
El Molino High, in the West Sonoma County Union High School District, was the only campus invalidated each of the last two years. In 2010, a teacher allowed students to use calculators — forbidden on the state tests.
In 2011, students recognized questions on the test from a teacher's biology review sheet. The teacher denied using test questions until one student produced evidence. The teacher said she couldn't precisely recall how she'd obtained the material.
Pathways to College, an independently run charter in the Hesperia Unified School District, had its scores rejected because a teacher failed to remove a poster displaying multiplication tables.
At the Public Safety Academy, a charter school in San Bernardino, the school founder's wife — who also served as middle school principal — was accused of breaking the test seal, looking over the questions and creating similar math problems for students.
With the school's board members poised to fire her, her husband replaced them, saying he wanted to move the school in a new direction.
The issue went to court. The school's original board was reinstated, and both Michael and Susan Dickinson lost their jobs.