Stringent security policies have been in place over many years for statewide accountability measures and other high-stakes tests. But at Measured Progress, we’ve begun to think that best practices for test security should also apply to districtwide assessments, such as district interim assessments, benchmarks, and others.
At the annual Conference on Test Security in early September, Dr. Steve Ferrara, Senior Advisor for Measurement Solutions at Measured Progress, delivered a presentation along with Steve Addicott, Vice President of Caveon Test Security. Dr. Ferrara shared these thoughts with us before the conference.
What do we mean by test security?
Generally, when we talk about test security, we’re talking about managing test distribution and orderly administration with procedures that restrict who can see the test material and student data, and when. Whether delivered in paper-pencil or online format, secure tests must be physically or digitally tracked, securely stored, and accounted for at every step of the process. Test security measures determine
- who receives and stores the testing materials or oversees online implementation at a district or school,
- who has access to materials or login information and student data,
- how tests are scheduled and distributed to students, and
- how responses are collected, saved, and scored.
3 reasons test security is important for district and school tests
Even though district assessments take place in a different testing environment, have different intended purposes, and generate information that is used differently from high-stakes test data, security is still important. Why? For the same reasons we require test security for statewide assessments. It’s important to
1. Maintain data integrity
2. Protect test content
3. Uphold professional ethics
1. Maintain data integrity. Simply put, we need to be able to trust the scores that tell us what kids know, can do, and need. We make important decisions based on these scores. When students get an advance look at test content, their performance on an assessment isn’t a true reflection of their abilities or understanding. Whether another student or a teacher has exposed the material, the result is that students demonstrate that they know how to complete that item or items. They don’t necessarily show us how well they can apply knowledge and critical thinking. Responding to test questions about what they’ve learned. If that’s the case, what good are the results? Not much.
2. Protect test content. Good tests that generate useful information cost money. Whether test materials are created locally or districts purchase vendor-created tests, they’re expensive to develop. Let’s say that a large school district spends $500,000 on interim tests for 50,000 students, and someone exposes the content. The district has more than a personnel or discipline issue on its hands. Potentially, the district could lose its half-million-dollar investment—and the information it planned to use to inform teaching strategies, instructional groupings, curriculum decisions, and interventions to help struggling students. In such a case, everybody—the district, teachers, students, and taxpayers—loses.
The other side of this coin is that test security doesn’t just prevent loss; it adds value. Re-using good test content—passages as well as test questions—maximizes the benefit of time and money spent on item development, field testing, external content evaluation committees, and more. (Learn more about content development.) Over time, the practice of keeping test material secure can result in a library of assessment content that can be used to gather a variety of data.
Repeated items also provide psychometric opportunities to provide richer data. Re-using test items with different groups of students in different years allows psychometricians to equate test forms by putting them on the same scale. This gives educators data that has consistent meaning across equated forms and years.
3. Uphold professional ethics: Many test materials are copyrighted, intellectual property. If education professionals allow test materials to be treated casually—left exposed in classrooms, stored in unsecured locations, or allowed to seep into classroom teaching—we’re conveying a negative message about the value of intellectual property, and how to treat it.
Then there’s outright cheating. You may remember the Atlanta scandal, in which 35 educators were indicted on racketeering and other charges—and eventually some of those teachers and administrators served prison terms. That’s an extreme example. But we know there are less drastic examples, such as a teacher sharing a test item, or a student snapping a photo of an item and posting it on social media.
When these incidents are met with a slap on the wrist, students perceive that the rules don’t really matter. More significantly, when word gets around that a teacher—someone students should respect and emulate—has violated a rule, what are they to think? Those are lessons we don’t intend to teach.
Where do we go from here?
Test security may seem unimportant or burdensome at the district and local levels. The big issues that must be addressed are feasibility and consequences. How can districts and classrooms implement stronger security measures? What will be the consequences of a security breach? And will a district have the fortitude and resources to take action against security violators, and to take corrective action?
Most state programs have clear outcomes for security breaches, with contingency plans to mitigate them. Plus, they carry the weight of state government. For example, a state can suspend or revoke an educator’s certification. Districts, too, need to set clear expectations and consequences for cheating, and to create backup plans. With stakeholders at all levels exploring ways to use district assessments to contribute to state accountability results as ESSA suggests, the needs for test and data security become even more evident.
It’s time for education leaders to explore these issues, and to create plans that assure the integrity and sustainability of their data, protect test content, and set the expectation of ethical professional behavior. Educators choose assessments thoughtfully and deliberately to create a balanced assessment system that helps improve outcomes for students. Test security practices help promote an understanding of this true value of assessments.To learn more about issues in test security, go to the conference website .