Saturday, June 12, 2010

Taking a Trip Through Cheating Land

When do we get the Ed deformers saying they're just shocked cheating has been going on? I've seen it since I first started teaching in the late 60's. Using old tests that were repeated was the way sophisticated people did it (collecting them did not always work as people had time to make notes for future ref even during the test). Others just erased.

From the Daily Howler:

GABRIEL GETS IT RIGHT (permalink): Even as Steinhauer muses on hair, Trip Gabriel gets it very right on the front page of today’s Times. “CHEAT SHEET,” part of his headline says. “Pressed to Show Progress, Educators Tamper With Test Scores.”

Decades later, the New York Times is catching up with the problem of cheating on high-stakes tests in the public schools. (And yes, we’re talking about outright cheating, not about “teaching to the test.”) In the following passage, Gabriel describes a high-scoring school where the principal and assistant principal simply erased wrong answers and filled in right answers, after the students went home:

GABRIEL (6/11/10): Educators ensnared in cheating scandals rarely admit to wrongdoing. But at one Georgia school last year, a principal and an assistant principal acknowledged their roles in a test-erasure scandal.

For seven years, their school, Atherton Elementary in suburban Atlanta, had met the standards known in federal law as Adequate Yearly Progress—A.Y.P. in educators’ jargon—by demonstrating that a rising share of students performed at grade level.

Then, in 2008, the bar went up again and Atherton stumbled. In June, the school’s assistant principal for instruction, reviewing student answer sheets from the state tests, told her principal, “We cannot make A.Y.P.,” according to an affidavit the principal signed.

“We didn’t discuss it any further,” the principal, James L. Berry, told school district investigators. “We both understood what we meant.”

Pulling a pencil from a cup on the desk of Doretha Alexander, the assistant principal, Dr. Berry said to her, “I want you to call the answers to me,” according to an account Ms. Alexander gave to investigators.

The principal erased bubbles on the multiple-choice answer sheets and filled in the right answers.

This sort of thing has gone on for a very long time, ever since standardized testing began getting tied to “accountability” around 1970. We’ve been speaking to journalists about this sort of thing since the early 1970s. We started writing op-ed columns on this topic in the late 1970s, in the Baltimore Sun. We started discussing this topic in THE HOWLER in1999.

For decades, the mainstream press corps simply refused to come to terms with this problem. In recent years, the Times has been coming around quite smartly, doing serious work on this topic. About its “Cheat Sheet” series, the Times says this: “Articles in this series will examine cheating in education and efforts to stop it.”

The analysts whistled and cheered.

Gabriel’s piece is very much worth reading. We’ll note two omissions, skipping a third:

States can cheat too: This morning’s piece discusses the way teachers and principals can cheat on tests, driving up the passing rates of a particular classroom or school. But in recent years, something like cheating has sometimes occurred on a statewide basis. There is little doubt that some states have made their statewide tests easier over the years, without informing the public. This is an artificial way of driving up passing rates on a statewide basis. This may seem more innocent than the practice described in that excerpt from Gabriel’s piece. But when states drive up passing rates in this way, that’s basically “cheating” too. (It wouldn’t be cheating if the public was told that the tests had been made easier.)

In praise of security measures: Gabriel quotes John Fremer, an expert in this kind of cheating. “Every time you increase the stakes associated with any testing program, you get more cheating,” he sensibly says. At the end of his piece, Gabriel quotes a second expert who has “called for refocusing education away from high-stakes testing because of the distorted incentives it introduces for teachers.” But annual testing is very important; in its absence, school systems are free to tell the public any damn thing about student progress. Cheating could be greatly reduced by improvements in security measures—for example, by having unaffected proctors administer the tests, rather than affected teachers. (And by keeping the answer sheets away from affected principals.) This would cost money, and it would require planning. But it would be an obvious way to deal with this ongoing problem.

When it comes to issues like these, the mainstream press corps has been virtually ineducable down through the years. (Meanwhile, liberal journals walked away from black kids decades ago. We liberals don’t dirty our hands with such topics; we’re too busy calling conservatives “racist.”) In a very constructive way, the New York Times has been getting up to speed on cheating issues in recent years.

Today, Gabriel authors another top-notch piece. The analysts whistled and uttered a cry: May “Cheat Sheet” long prevail!


  1. If the DOE pays me enough, I can be a shill and take the place of third or fifth graders and guarantee at least a 3 if not a 4!!I'll help anyone who wants to reach AYP (for a fee of course)!!

  2. Principal and teacher cheating in NYC public schools is a scandal waiting explode. Inflating scores on high stakes tests is so engrained in the culture that it usually remains on the downlow, unspoken, unnoticed, and as Steven Levitt wrote in Freakonomics “just about never punished.”

    Who is to blame for this vast educational flim-flam? The state education department for lack of enforcement and audits. The Mayor and the Chancellor for tolerating , even encouraging, tampering by their indifference. President Mulgrew for refusing to discuss or deter the crime sprees of his members. My District Rep actually advised me to cover up a Regents cheating ring at my school, the Cobble Hill School of American Studies in Brooklyn, lest guilty teachers be swept up in the investigation of the AP who ran the show.

    After I blew the whistle and OSI substantiated my allegations via three teacher confessions, the AP resigned in disgrace, the Principal was removed for covering-up, and the LIS got a written reprimand. So far, so good. Justice was done. Then two years later, SCI contradicted OSI’s verdict with a report of its own, saying that there was insufficient evidence of cheating.

    Whose conclusion did the Chancellor accept? His own investigators’ or SCI’s? Of course, he endorsed the finding that took the tampering off the books and chilled whistleblowers like me from exposing corruption as mandated by city law. (N.B. The Mayor vetoed the City Council’s law extending whistleblower protection to teachers, but it passed over his veto in 2006.)

    The SCI report embraced by Chancellor was so fraudulent --e.g., it was unencumbered by an audit of the disputed Regents exams—that it is currently under investigation itself on my complaint by an Inspector General of the Department of Investigation.

    I urge teachers reading this comment to flood Norm with their cheating stories and suggestions for prevention.


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