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High Stakes Cheating

Under increasing pressure to raise scores or risk losing their jobs, some teachers and administrators are being pushed over the edge.

Administrators and teachers in several large districts nationwide have cheated on standardized tests to make achievement levels look better than they actually were. The offenses range from giving students advance answers to questions on standardized tests, to erasing and changing unsatisfactory answers.

Just last February, New York City school officials stated they would introduce a new, rigorous system of auditing test scores, grading practices and graduation rates of the public high schools, appearing to acknowledge rising concerns that some schools might be manipulating the statistics they are judged by, according to a story in The New York Times. About 60 high schools would be selected for the first round of audits, based on whether their data showed suspicious patterns, like a sudden rises in scores, the Times states. As a result of district and state investigations nationwide into cheating allegations, personnel have resigned, retired or been fired, and districts are taking steps from ramping up training to establishing confidential hotlines to try to prevent future incidents.

Cheating by administrators and teachers is not new, but it "has escalated considerably" since enactment of the federal No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, with its requirement that schools report Adequate Yearly Progress, says Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "There is no excuse for it," he declares. "The reason is the pressure to perform at a certain level." Job security for principals is a key factor, because "the performance of their school reflects on them," he adds.

"Certainly NCLB has raised the stakes on test results, and clearly teachers and principals feel tremendous pressure to raise their students' test scores and meet AYP targets," agrees Joan Herman, director of the National Center for Research on Education, Standards and Student Testing in the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.

Although paying teachers based on their performance, a concept advanced by President Barack Obama, "isn't widespread yet," it could "put more pressure on teachers and administrators to do well, and potentially stimulate them to 'game' the system in ways that may or may not be legitimate," Herman asserts.

Value-added assessment of teachers based on their effectiveness is another increasingly popular, though controversial, policy, according to a report, "Evaluating Teachers: The Important Role of Value-Added," issued last November by the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization in Washington, D.C. "As the stakes get higher, there is a lot more pressure," agrees Michael Hinojosa, superintendent of the Dallas Independent School District (DISD), who also cites incentives such as compensation and job security based on performance.


Daria Hall, director of K12 policy at the Education Trust, another Washington-based nonprofit, agrees that cheating is "unethical and immoral" and maintains that "to claim NCLB or any other law forces us to do it is abdicating professional responsibility. We have not done enough to provide teachers the support they need to meet the high expectations they are being held to."

It's up to the federal government, she says, to provide "robust educational support" for teachers. "We give them standards and say 'OK, go teach.' But teachers need materials aligned with the standards so they can plan their instruction," Hall says. She suggests giving teachers model assignments and assignment rubrics among other resources that would be helpful.

Exposing Problems

Allegations of cheating incidents usually are exposed in districts' own reviews of test results, which trigger more extensive investigations, and sometimes involve state agencies. In Dallas, results on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) test in 2009 at Lang Middle School "jumped out," Hinojosa says. "There were a significant number of students who had never passed these tests, or barely passed, and all of a sudden they got more than 90 percent of the questions right, and we knew that didn't look right."

The findings were turned over to the district's Office of Professional Responsibility, which investigates all allegations of fraud, waste or abuse, and Lang Middle School's principal, assistant principal and testing coordinator subsequently resigned, Hinojosa reports. In another case, the Texas Education Agency suspended state accreditation of the Houston Independent School District for nine months, until last December, after finding "significant evidence" that students at the district's Key Middle School were helped on a 2009 TAKS test and that some answers had been changed.

"Of course, if you have a test, you'll have somebody who tries to play with it. It's inherent in human nature. But we think people who do that are outliers, outside the mainstream of our community of teachers and administrators," says Michael Sarbanes, director of community engagement in the Baltimore City (Md.) Public Schools.

A two-year investigation in Baltimore revealed "a pattern of erasures changing incorrect answers to correct" on the 2008 Maryland School Assessment at George Washington Elementary School, according to a report released in May 2010 by BCPS CEO Andres A. Alonso and Maryland Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick, who revoked the school principal's teaching certificate.

Concerns about the school included former fifth-graders' test results that showed large declines in their state test scores in later grades—"much larger than those of exiting fifth-grade students from other schools," Alonso and Grasmick reported. Ironically, says Sarbanes, the school "was under no AYP pressure. It was doing fine. Somebody just wanted to gild the lily." Still, he continues, "we have to be very firm when we find those outliers so those incidents don't undermine people's confidence in the academic progress the schools actually are making. It's not fair to the kids or the teachers if somebody tries to rip the results on a test."

It was teachers at the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy, a charter school sponsored by the Clark County (Nev.) School District, who reportedly exposed the school's principal for calling several sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students into an office to finish incomplete answers on a standardized math test on one day in March 2010. That was "a serious offense because it destroys the integrity of the test," Nevada Senior Deputy Attorney General Ed Irvin told the state board of education at a meeting last August, according to a summary of meeting minutes.

The test scores of the students involved were invalidated, says Carol Mason, test security coordinator in the Nevada Department of Education. The department suspended the principal's license for 100 days but "did not find sufficient wrongdoing" to warrant revoking the license, says Sue A. Daellenbach, assistant superintendent for assessment accountability, research and school improvement in the Clark County district. The district hired the principal again last year to be principal at Clifford Lawrence Middle School.

Testing Irregularities

Other recent cheating incidents like those in Dallas, Houston, Baltimore and Las Vegas have occurred. At the Lafayette-Winona Middle School in the Norfolk (Va.) Public Schools, "improper assistance was provided" to students to ensure that they would obtain passing scores on the Virginia Grade Level Alternative assessment for students in grades 3-8 with disabilities or limited English proficiency during the 2008-2009 school year, according to the executive summary released in March 2010 of an independent panel's investigation of testing irregularities at the school.

The panel found that teachers used overhead projectors to give students answers to questions to copy onto the test. "I know that some people retired. I don't know what the circumstances were behind their retirement," says Norfolk's superintendent, Richard Bentley, who was appointed to the post last August.

One of those who retired was his predecessor, Stephen C. Jones, who has not been linked directly to the cheating incident but told the Norfolk City Council that he took full responsibility for it. A principal is on administrative reassignment while appealing a recommendation that she be fired. Up to 58 schools in the Atlanta (Ga.) Public Schools are the focus of an ongoing investigation that involves agents of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation over allegations stemming from the state's 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests.

Gov. Sonny Perdue told members of the state board of education last year that state audits flagged the schools because their test results were "widely irregular." At least until the current investigation is concluded, Superintendent Beverly L. Hall, who is leaving her post in June, and other Atlanta Public School administrators decline to be interviewed about it, says district spokesperson Keith Bromery. "The state investigation is still ongoing, and no one who is part of the investigation has publicly said anything about confessions or criminal indictments," Bromery states.

However, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last November 30 that "numerous" district employees "have confessed to changing students' test papers, providing answers to students or watching others manipulate tests" and that the investigation "appears headed toward criminal prosecutions."

Preventive Actions

Like many state education agencies, the Nevada Department of Education establishes test security and administration protocols for all state-mandated tests. The department spells it out for the 2010-2011 school year in a 27-page document that details testing requirements districts and schools must follow, including reporting testing irregularities.

The Clark County School District provides even more detail in its own 35-page "Plan for Test Administration and Test Security 2010-2011," which expounds on multiple "irregularities" in test administration and security and states that any staff members who engage in them "will be subject to disciplinary actions."

Other districts have similar policies, plans and procedures. Testing protocols in the Norfolk Public Schools, for example, follow Virginia Department of Education standards for test implementation. Steps that the district has taken as a result of its cheating incident include revamped training for test coordinators, teachers and administrators, and the establishment of a confidential hotline for people to report possible testing violations. The district also is expanding online testing. "The hope is that this will reduce chances for errors," says Norfolk's Bentley.

Alan Dessoff is a contributing writer for District Administration.