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Taking the Helm in Cheating Scandals

District leaders are increasing security and laying down the law to avert cheating on high-stakes tests.
Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Andrés Alonso, who warned on the district Web site that cheaters would lose their license, speaks to a student about his classwork.

Last July, the Atlanta Public Schools became the poster district for teachers and principals behaving badly. State investigators found that, in 44 schools across the city, 178 teachers and administrators had systematically cheated on the state standardized tests taken by their students in 2009.

Besides creating a local uproar and clouding the departure of longtime Atlanta Superintendent Beverly Hall at the end of June, the far-flung scandal has spurred the involvement of Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, who authorized the investigation when the cheating allegations arose a year earlier, and of the Fulton County Grand Jury, which has jurisdiction over Atlanta and is looking into possible criminal activity on the part of the educators involved.

For all the unwelcome attention, though, Atlanta is hardly alone. In early August, the School District of Philadelphia singled out 13 schools where student answer sheets were altered after standardized testing. That revelation made for a rocky end to the tenure of schools CEO Arlene Ackerman, who left at the end of that month.

Earlier this year in Los Angeles, six charter schools, all run by the same educational company, had their charters revoked by the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education after it was revealed that the company’s founder had instructed teachers and principals to open standardized test packets in advance and coach students on the right answers. And the Baltimore City Public Schools revealed cheating at two elementary schools on the Maryland School Assessment during 2009 and 2010.

This scandal is not limited to large urban districts. For example, Waterbury (Conn.) Public Schools is reeling under allegations of cheating on state tests by 15 teachers and two administrators at Hopeful Elementary School last year.

Robert Schaeffer, public education director for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, an advocacy organization in Cambridge, Mass., sees an even wider swath of teachers and principals crossing ethical boundaries. He argues that they are responding—albeit wrongly—to the high-stakes standardized testing required under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

“We’ve seen an explosion of cheating over the past year among schools and teachers manipulating scores to meet NCLB’s unrealistic standards,” Schaeffer explains. And various education departments have noticed improbably high jumps in student scores and widespread and suspicious erasures on answer sheets, he adds.

The growing cavalcade of transgressions certainly runs counter to the American Association of School Administrators’ Code of Ethics, which demands that educators “fulfill all professional duties with honesty and integrity and always act in a trustworthy and responsible manner.”

“It specifically identifies teachers and administrators as the last individuals we want to practice unethical behavior,” explains AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech. He notes that with adequate yearly progress and even educators’ own jobs dependent on student test scores, more teachers and administrators are resorting to measures they might not have taken in the past. “Although [cheating] is totally unethical and wrong, we’re probably going to see more of it as educators feel the pressure,” he admits.

Cleaning Up in Atlanta

The largest cheating scandal by far has cast a pall over Atlanta’s national reputation for dramatic rises in student scores over recent years. State investigators found evidence of “cheating parties” at some schools, where teachers and principals made wholesale changes to student answer sheets.

The job of setting things right has fallen to Erroll Davis, the new superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, who arrived in July after serving for the past five years as the chancellor of Georgia’s university system and its 33 campuses. “I was asked by a number of people [to consider the job] because they knew the scandal was coming and wanted someone who brought credibility and some stability to the system,” he says.

Indeed, Davis began work just as the state’s 400-plus-page report was ready. “I had to read that report in two days, and I didn’t know if it would implicate people in my office,” he recalls. “It did, so very soon I had to start getting rid of people.”

The firings included the district’s head of human resources, although the 178 educators implicated in the report consisted almost exclusively of teachers and principals. While some of those involved in the cheating scandal have retired or resigned, Davis notes that about 120 “are still at home collecting money” as the grand jury investigation runs its course.

“I made it clear to them they would not be in front of students,” says Davis, who removed principals at schools where cheating took place, even if they were not directly implicated. “I have commented extensively on their ‘duty of care,’ to take care of everything in their schools,” Davis explains. “They were derelict in that duty.”

On the legal front, Atlanta’s school board has gone so far as to waive the district’s legal privacy rights and has turned over records and computer drives to the grand jury. What remains, Davis says, is to make sure testing irregularities do not happen again.

To that end, the district has clarified the chain of custody of tests, including careful documentation, from the time they arrive at schools until they are returned for scoring. Schools are now required to keep tests in sealed storage rooms monitored by cameras and accessible only by a special key that records any entry.

Davis may require that future testing be monitored by teachers from a different school and that two people instead of one be involved in counting all answer sheets and test booklets.

The downside is more work for administrators. “It takes more time, more energy, more dollars, and it’s definitely an additional distraction,” observes Domenech. “But it’s essential for administrators to do in order to not end up holding the bag.”

A Renewed Focus on Ethics

Davis also has imposed yearly ethics training for all educators in the district, which is a condition of ongoing employment. “We’ve developed a full-blown ethics program that includes conversations, role playing and online work,” he says. “I want to keep ethics in front of people so they’ll understand that it’s important.”

John Barge, Georgia’s state school superintendent, adds that one of the lessons to come from Atlanta’s cheating scandal involves ethical breaches by school administrators. “You have to take a real, serious and sober look at the leadership in your system,” he says. “The things that happened in Atlanta were not simply teachers acting off the cuff. There was real pressure from leadership.”

Meanwhile, Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Andrés Alonso has laid down the law, and won praise for his response to the cheating there. Besides implementing many of the same changes that Atlanta has embraced, the district spent nearly $400,000 this past spring to place outside monitors at all 157 schools in classrooms where the Maryland School Assessment is being administered. “We are doing everything within our power to make it impossible to cheat, and we will find and punish those who do,” Alonso says. “The protocols we have in place go beyond what we know most urban districts to be doing in the realm of test security.”

Alonso has also made a personal appeal to the educators in his district, recording an eight-minute video in which he emphasizes personal integrity in the testing process. “If there is anybody who is thinking about any kind of irregularities,” he says in his presentation, “I need you to understand that your entire professional livelihood is on the line. We are not talking about termination. We are not talking about being transferred. We are talking about losing your professional license.”

That recording has received a larger audience, including Kris Ellington, the deputy commissioner for accountability, research and measurement at the Florida Department of Education. “It was very clear, compelling and professional,” says Ellington, who has spent much of the year dealing with irregularities in the results of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test in 14 districts around the state.

Gaining a Technological Edge

Those irregularities surfaced in 2010 after Florida hired a test-security company that uses detection technology to spot erasures, unlikely gains in year-to-year test scores, and extensive similarities in student answer sheets. “Tools for doing that have become a lot more sophisticated,” Ellington says. “There was statistical evidence on the erasures on the answer documents.”

The districts involved conducted investigations but found no cheating. That was not the case this summer in Philadelphia, where detection technology revealed patterns of cheating at 13 schools. “This is the first year where we’ve had real evidence of schools manipulating the tests,” says Daniel Piotrowski, the School District of Philadelphia’s executive director of accountability and assessment. “Before, we’d investigate allegations, but it was hard to go into a school because it looked like a witch hunt.”

That doesn’t mean the case is solved. “Now we have the problem of figuring out who’s had access to the tests,” Piotrowski admits. “It may take the next year to sort out the last three years.”

In the meantime, Piotrowski’s office will closely monitor the affected schools and tighten security districtwide. But Piotrowski is depending greatly on the new technology to stem the tide of cheating. “Going into this year, the word’s out there,” Piotrowski says. “Now that people know they’ll be an analysis of erasures every year, it will make people think twice before they attempt to change student answers.”

Beyond Standardized Testing

A number of educational leaders and advocates are suggesting that states and districts think twice about depending on state assessments as the only measure of student achievement and school worthiness. “Setting up zero tolerance policies will only get you so far,” warns Schaeffer.

In September, Barge’s office requested a waiver from NCLB in favor of a College and Career Readiness Performance Index. “Schools and districts receive scores on the entire scope of work for creating readiness,” Barge explains.

Those overall scores include the percentage of students passing AP and International Baccalaureate exams and end-of-course tests, as well as SAT and ACT scores and completion rates of dual-enrollment and industry-certified courses that prepare graduates for the workforce. Schools receive additional credit for making significant progress on student achievement scores and closing achievement gaps.

President Obama announced this fall that alternative assessments would be available to all states. But for now, the preferred way of dealing with cheating—and preventing future incidents—is to take a law-and-order approach. In Connecticut, for example, the state education commissioner has proposed making guilty teachers and principals liable for the thousands of dollars to investigate irregularities and retest.

The irony of cheating has not been lost on Piotrowski. “In an attempt to give schools a good reputation in the short run,” he says, “teachers and principals have damaged that reputation in the long run.”

Ron Schachter is a contributing writer to District Administration.