A record number of Utah teachers were investigated and disciplined for changing students' answer sheets and otherwise cheating on statewide tests last school year.

About 15 teachers were referred to State Office of Education investigators for allegedly compromising test security in the first year of Utah's school accountability movement, Carol Lear, director of school law and legislation for the State Office of Education, said Friday. Most were disciplined, but none lost their licenses over it.

By comparison, Lear recalls perhaps three testing security violations ever coming before the Utah Professional Practices Advisory Commission in the past.

The commission investigates allegations, reprimands teachers for misdeeds or, if egregious enough, recommends the State Board of Education revoke teaching licenses.

State officials expected some cheating, as seen in other states, once Utah joined the national movement to hold schools publicly accountable for student achievement.

Granted, some 15 improprieties among 22,000 school teachers is a miniscule number.

But the violations nevertheless trouble officials from the Legislature to the teachers union. And, state education officials say, the latest batch of misdeeds may represent only the tip of the iceberg.

The state does not audit school districts for infractions and relies heavily on whistle-blowers. Numbers also don't reflect incidents districts have handled internally.

"There may be several infractions happening all the time that nobody's aware of," state testing coordinator Barbara Lawrence said.

Utah schools are implementing the 2000 Utah Performance Assessment System for Students. U-PASS contains a series of tests for first- through 12th-graders, including end-of-the-year tests on the core curriculum, writing exams, national standardized tests and a high school graduation test.

The graduation exam, called the Utah Basic Skills Competency Test, is Utah's only "high stakes" test. Students have two years to pass the exam; those who fail won't receive a high school diploma.

Other test scores, however, are publicly reported — most for the first time. And that has created additional stress on teachers, State Board of Education President Kim Burningham said.

"I would suspect we're putting too much emphasis on testing these days. There is pressure on people to fabricate" or otherwise inflate scores, "though I trust teachers well enough to know 99 percent would resist," Burningham said.

Yet some teachers in other states have succumbed to temptation.

In 1999, New York City school investigators uncovered what was dubbed one of the largest cheating incidents in recent history of American public schools. They accused dozens of teachers and two principals of helping students cheat on tests used to rank public schools and determine whether students moved on to the next grade.

Utah's reported incidents are scattered throughout the state, Lawrence reported.

Accusations Lawrence has recorded include:

  • A teacher who was accused of changing students' answer sheets.

  • Another teacher who passed tests to colleagues and talked about how they could teach to the test questions.

  • One teacher who marked certain questions on the core curriculum test and told students to carefully think about them before answering.

  • Another who changed students' scores on college entrance tests, allegedly to notch up the class' report to the school district.

  • "I think they're concerned with how public all of this information is, and wanting to look good," Lawrence said. "Some of it, however, is teachers not fully understanding what is and is not acceptable . . . and in some cases, it is a matter of teachers being truly naive."

    That could be the case with one teacher who allowed students to work on the Stanford Achievement Test during recess or lunch breaks. The SAT is a timed test.

    The state is working on test-security glitches.

    For instance, the state school board Friday talked about requiring principals to account for the number of test booklets they receive. And now, principals all must fill out a form explaining they've trained teachers in testing protocol, and attach an agenda and minutes of the training meeting, Lear said.

    "Until we have crystal-clear . . . training, the (professional practices) commission is very cautious about taking serious action . . . and has been fair in giving (accused teachers) the benefit of the doubt," Lear said. "In some ways, hearing about these can be interpreted as a positive thing. That means districts and district staffs are taking these things seriously. . . . We're looking at it as an opportunity to plug holes."

    The Utah Education Association pledges to help teachers understand testing protocol and school accountability ethics.

    "If it's found (misdeeds) are widespread, I would be disappointed," UEA President Pat Rusk said. "But I also know there are teachers who have been investigated and exonerated."

    Legislators also have an interest in ensuring testing security is tight. After all, they led the charge to hold schools more accountable for student achievement, a national movement repeatedly pushed by President Bush.

    Test-security violations, however, may surprise lawmakers. One leader of the Legislature's Education Appropriations Subcommittee plans to look into the matter with the State Office of Education.

    "Are (teachers) thinking their school or classroom is going to be unduly looked down upon because they're not making the progress maybe they've set for themselves?" Rep. Marda Dillree, R-Farmington, said of testing improprieties. "I can't understand why anyone would want to do that. All you do is jeopardize the students. You don't get a true picture of what they're doing, and it's the students who suffer.

    "What an example to our children, if it is true."