They are the nearly invisible clues left behind that can tip off experts about possible cheating on standardized tests: the little erasure marks of an answer changed from wrong to right.
And sadly, it’s mostly the adults who are the culprits.
Now the prevalence of such erasures is getting 34 New Jersey public schools a letter from the state indicating that it wants another look at their exams and procedures. The move comes as test security is getting ever more attention nationwide, in the wake of high-profile cheating scandals in Dallas and, more recently, Atlanta.
The state Department of Education (DOE) yesterday released an analysis compiled over the past three years that examined patterns of erasures on the state’s battery of standardized tests -- including where they could be clues to tampering.
In the case of the 34 schools, there were too many erasures from wrong to right answers not to at least raise a flag, officials said. They are in rich, middle-class and poor districts alike, and also include a couple of charter schools--among them one of the state's most successful.
Forced to reveal the letters through a public records request, however, state officials stressed they were making no direct accusations, just asking a few questions.
In 22 of the cases, which involve tests for a single grade in school, the districts will conduct the first reviews. The state will do so in the remaining 12, where the anomalies were in more than one grade.
"I want to be very clear about how we use these reports," acting state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf said in his letter to districts. "In no way do these reports prove that cheating occurred, nor do they implicate any school or teacher in wrongdoing."
"High instances of erasure marks, where wrong answers are changed to right answers, happen for many reasons, including students checking their work or students making mistakes in tracking their test with the answer folder."
Experts concurred that erasures are just one of several tools at their disposal, and not even the most widely used. One said the best predictors are when large numbers of students have the same or similar answers.
"The erasure is often the one that's used in the school setting where the focus might be on what the educators and not the kids might have done," said John Fremer, a nationally recognized consultant on testing security.
"It is not the only way to do this, by any means, but it is the one that is most readily detectable," said Fremer, president of Caveon Testing Security, a Utah-based company.
Detection of this sort is a fast-evolving field. High-tech scanning devices can already examine every mark, determining not only wrong-to-right erasures but also the depth of the indents to see if more than one hand may be at work.
"That’s where the craft and technology come in," said Fremer, whose company has worked with more than a dozen states on their assessment systems, although not New Jersey. "There is a real level of sophistication to using these results."
The state’s analysis, conducted by its testing company Measurement Inc. over the past three years, poked and prodded at erasure marks on an estimated 500,000 tests from 2008-2010.
In Measurement Inc.’s analysis, it found that 58 percent of all erasures statewide – more than 2.4 million in 2010 -- were from wrong-to-right answers, the balance being wrong-to-wrong or right-to-wrong. It also found that there were on average 2.43 such erasures per student.
It then looked for places that were anomalies, and determined 34 schools that stood out with numbers as much as four standard deviations above the mean.
They are in suburban districts like Franklin Lakes and Ridgefield Park, including a school that won a national blue ribbon, and poorer districts such as Newark, Elizabeth and Atlantic City.
Newark has six schools on the list, including one of its highest achieving, Abington Avenue School. In that case, the analysis found more than 11 wrong-to-right erasures per student.
There were also three charter schools on the list. One of them is Robert Treat Academy Charter School in Newark, one of the state’s most successful and often cited by Gov. Chris Christie as a model of education reform. Founded by well-known Newark political leader Stephen Adubato Sr., the school was the first place Christie visited after being elected.
In the school’s case, it was an anomaly in a single grade, the sixth. The DOE's investigative arm, the Office of Fiscal Accountability and Compliance, will conduct a further review, including possibly interviewing teachers and staff, officials said.
The news caught the school by surprise, and immediately drew a short statement from the school’s principal and Adubato’s daughter, Theresa Adubato:
"As the DOE indicated, the erasure analysis does not indicate any irregularities occurred at Robert Treat Academy. We welcome the DOE’s review of our sixth-grade tests. I’m confident that the DOE will find no irregularities occurred."
New Jersey has seen a handful of cheating cases over the years. Eight teachers were recently disciplined after being accused of having coached children on answers or otherwise breached the state’s stringent security rules that prohibit examining test materials before or after testing.
But while two of them were in schools that were cited in the recent letters, none of these teacher’s infractions were discovered through erasure analysis. Instead, it was a more time-tested tactic: the anonymous tip.