‘Forensic investigation’ aims to uncover Sats cheating

6th November 2015 at 00:00
Heads’ union claims ministers ‘don’t trust teachers’ as DfE calls in papers from 400 primaries

The government has begun a major, proactive investigation into cheating by schools in national tests, TES can reveal.

Key stage 2 Sats papers from 400 primaries have been called in by the Standards and Testing Agency (STA), part of the Department for Education.

Officials are conducting a “detailed review” of the completed test scripts from May this year to determine whether they contain “answers which were not from a pupil’s own independent work”.

News of the investigation, which emerged through a TES Freedom of Information request, comes as concerns persist about significant numbers of schools cheating in the high-stakes tests – where poor results can cost teachers their jobs.

The revelation is potentially embarrassing for the government as it falls in the same week that ministers have unveiled a review of primary assessment that could result in national tests being reintroduced for infant pupils (see pages 14-15).

Education secretary Nicky Morgan said: “To be really confident that students are progressing well through primary school, we will be looking at the assessment of pupils at age 7 to make sure it is as robust and rigorous as it needs to be.”

But the FOI response shows her officials had already decided that “a forensic script investigation” was needed to counter cheating in existing national tests and to “strengthen the maladministration processes”.

TES has also learned that the DfE has commissioned “data-based models” to identify schools at “higher risk of maladministration [cheating]” based on their test results and “other contextual data”.

‘Cycle of suspicion’

But headteachers’ leaders are unhappy about the emphasis being placed on cheating. Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT union, said: “It is hard to avoid the sense that ministers really don’t trust teachers.

“The rates of maladministration are incredibly low, despite intense pressure, because of the integrity of the profession. Professionalism is the strongest protection we have, not a depressing cycle of suspicion and investigation.”

In May, the DfE advertised a £250,000 contract for an external body to undertake the “forensic examination” of test papers to try to “identify suspected cases of maladministration”, TES has learned.

Officials later decided to carry out the investigation in-house. But the procurement papers reveal that the DfE believed the move to on-screen computer marking of national tests – with multiple markers assessing a single child’s paper – meant there was “a need to generate new ways of identifying potential maladministration”.

‘Detailed review’

This week, the DfE said no further information could be disclosed on the details of its investigation because this could prevent cheating from being detected.

In its reply to the FOI request, the department said: “The in-house script examination will consist of a detailed review of completed 2015 national curriculum test scripts. This review will seek to determine if any test script contains answers which were not from a pupil’s own independent work.

“STA are continuously seeking ways to improve their processes and procedures. To strengthen the maladministration processes it was decided to undertake different approaches to identifying maladministration and undertake a forensic script investigation.”

The DfE defines maladministration as “a range of actions, including test papers being incorrectly opened, children cheating, over-aiding of children by test administrators or changes being made to children’s test papers by someone other than the child”.

In 2014, the DfE said 4,521 national test results were suppressed because of maladministration investigations, with 1,429 results annulled as a result of confirmed maladministration. No test results were annulled as a result of pupils cheating.

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