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Ga. schools with test erasures plummet

ATLANTA -- The number of schools with unusual erasure patterns on standardized tests plummeted last year after a massive cheating scandal in Atlanta that led to tighter exam security across the state, a report released Thursday shows.

Bonnie Holliday with the Governor's Office of Student Achievement told the state school board that just three schools were flagged as "severe concern," meaning they had 25 percent or more of classrooms with a high number of erasures. That's compared to 74 schools in the severe category in 2009.

In all, 189 schools were flagged, though most had low patterns of erasures. That represents 10 percent of all the elementary and middle schools in Georgia, compared to 20 percent in 2009.

Holliday stressed that the report does not prove the kind of cheating that state investigators found in Atlanta Public Schools, but it does warrant further investigation into what happened in those classrooms. The schools must conduct probes and report back to the state by May.

"The data pretty much shows the stopgaps we put into place to address the issue in 2009 have really been working," said state schools Superintendent John Barge. "We think it's positive."

Those measures include placing state monitors in schools to oversee testing and asking teachers to rotate classrooms so they're not administering exams to their own students. The state also stopped recommending that school officials erase stray marks from answer sheets after students turn in tests.

State board members asked the department to explore a rule that would require all schools to move teachers to another classroom during test administration.

"Then I think a lot of the controversy is gone," said board member Larry Winter. "It guarantees integrity."

The tests were the key measure the state used to determine whether it met the federal No Child Left Behind law. Schools that have good test scores get extra federal dollars to spend in the classroom or on teacher bonuses.

Georgia recently was granted a waiver from the federal law, which means this year schools can count a host of measures in addition to standardized tests. The standardized tests will still be used as part of measuring teacher performance.

Barge said he believes the state's new accountability system will remove the pressure to cheat on standardized tests because it won't be the sole way the state determines student growth. That pressure was part of what some educators in Atlanta Public Schools blamed for their cheating.

A state investigation last year revealed widespread by nearly 180 educators in Atlanta schools dating back to 2001, which has led to criminal probes in multiple counties and some educators losing their teaching licenses. Educators admitted to changing answers on tests and giving students correct answers, which meant thousands of students were promoted to the next grade with inflated test scores.

The state probe was sparked by an Office of Student Achievement analysis of 2009 tests and by an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution showing some scores were statistically improbable.