Hamilton County Schools students take a writing assessment as part of annual standardized testing.
The students' writing samples are scored on a broad scale of 1 to 6, with a grade of 1 described as deficient. The writing has serious writing mistakes, is incoherent or undeveloped. A grade of 6 is described as outstanding, and shows the student has a "high degree of proficiency" but may have a few minor errors.
The examples, with evaluators' comments, that follow show that within each score level, there is diversity of writing and range of skills.
Source: Tennessee Department of Education
School officials are investigating a claim of possible cheating on a state writing test last week at a local elementary school.
School leaders said they can't say how many people were involved in the possible cheating, but did say it does not appear to be a widespread problem in the school system or at Lakeside Academy of Math, Science, and Technology, the school that reported the testing issue.
"Lakeside Academy did exactly what Lakeside Academy and all other schools are supposed to do. If they find an irregularity, they're required to report that," said Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith. "That's exactly what they have done."
School officials aren't yet releasing details of the incident. But the teacher in question told the Chattanooga Times Free Press she received advice from a Memphis teacher to help prepare her daughter for last week's state writing test and doesn't think she did anything wrong.
Claims of cheating on standardized tests have popped up in schools across the country. The federal No Child Left Behind law has put added pressure on schools and teachers to perform on state tests. If schools don't meet federal benchmarks, they could be labeled a failure and even taken over by state education officials.
Teachers also fear that low performance could affect their jobs. In Tennessee, for the first time this year, half of a teacher's evaluation will be based on student achievement on tests.
One of the most notable cheating scandals occurred in Atlanta Public Schools, where teachers and school leaders for years erased and corrected answers on student tests before sending them off to be graded. That and other investigations into cheating led to heightened security surrounding state tests.
The Tennessee Department of Education has been notified of the local complaint and will commence its own investigation after Hamilton County completes the local inquiry, officials said.
Kirk Kelley, director of testing and accountability for Hamilton County, said the district is looking into an incident that occurred on last week's fifth-grade writing assessment, but he said he couldn't release any details about who was involved or what is believed to have occurred.
Kelley said the system launched an internal investigation last Wednesday and should finish within the next two weeks, when he said more details would be released. If any improprieties are found, Kelley said no students would have to retake a test, but that scores would be nullified.
The teacher involved, who asked that her name not be shared, told the Times Free Press she believes she will be cleared of any wrongdoing. On medical leave from teaching at another school, she said she called an acquaintance who is a Memphis teacher the night before the test to ask for help in preparing her fifth-grade daughter, a Lakeside student, for the exam.
Her daughter went to school and told other students that she knew what that day's writing prompt was, the woman said. The mother said she wasn't on the phone for the whole conversation and isn't sure whether her daughter was told about the writing prompt.
"All I did was call and ask for advice. If she did divulge information she wasn't supposed to, I had no idea," she said. "I never asked for a prompt. I don't know how she would have even known the prompt."
The state's writing assessments, for students in fifth, eighth and 11th grades, directs students to write on a specific topic. The writing prompts are not supposed to be shared with teachers or students prior to the testing day, officials said.
The mother said she was questioned by school officials, but said that no disciplinary action had been taken against her. She said she was just trying to prepare her daughter for the exam and will be proven "100 percent innocent."
"Being in education, I know how it is when kids aren't adequately prepared at home. And I know how important these tests are," she said.
Tennessee, like many states, has strict guidelines that regulate testing procedures. State law says that anyone who doesn't follow security guidelines should be placed on immediate suspension. Such action is grounds for dismissal, even for tenured personnel.
School systems generally receive the writing prompts two to three weeks before the test. When they're sent to the individual schools, they're required to be kept behind locked doors until test day, said Cheryl Ladd, who works in the school system's testing office.
All Tennessee students take exams on the same days according to a state-mandated schedule.
Completed exams are returned to the central office within two days and shipped to the test vendor for grading. Because each test must be read and independently evaluated, results usually don't return until April or May, Ladd said.
With scanned fill-in-the-bubble test, tracking systems can point to test irregularities such as a school or class that made unexpectedly high gains. Those data systems can help tip off officials to possible cheating. But Ladd said those indicators aren't as useful with the writing test, because students don't take it annually.
Smith said that testing security has been a high priority even before cheating scandals in other areas came to light in recent years.
"We've put in place safeguards and checks and balances," he said. "We always take any reported irregularity seriously."
A testing irregularity could be as serious as intentional cheating or as minor as a student who gets sick during the exam. Smith said schools must report such issues any time the testing environment is compromised. While minor issues like students getting sick are somewhat regular, Smith said it's rare to open an investigation into a matter that's this serious.