Not long ago, everyone trusted teachers to make sure students didn’t cheat.
These days, however, it’s teachers who are being scrutinized for possible deception.
In Atlanta, 178 public school teachers and principals have been accused of cheating to raise scores on state standardized tests.
In Washington, D.C. the U.S. Department of Education and the D.C. Office of the Inspector General are investigating similar allegations.
And state education officials in Florida have told 14 school districts, including Miami-Dade County, to conduct internal reviews, saying “extremely unusual levels” of erasures on standardized tests raised red flags.
Allegations of testing improprieties by teachers and administrators are spreading across public school districts, from Houston to Baltimore. Educators are accused of giving students inappropriate help and, in some cases, of changing students’ answers — all to raise their schools’ test scores.
The high-stakes tests are used to measure student achievement, teacher effectiveness, and schools’ annual progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. School funding, staff bonuses, and jobs often hinge on the scores.
“It’s easy to look at the individuals who were involved in changing wrong answers to right answers,” said Aaron Pallas, a professor of sociology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. “But it’s more appropriate to think of this as an example of organizational misconduct,” he said, citing examples in other fields such as the widening phone hacking scandal at a British tabloid and price fixing by U.S. corporations.
“We’re seeing some features that are similar among these school districts: pressures inside and outside of school districts to raise scores rapidly,” Pallas said. “There’s a big gap in school districts between targets and goals they’re being held accountable for and legitimate means for reaching those goals. Whenever there’s a gap between goals and having legitimate means for reaching those goals, there’s tremendous pressure and cheating becomes a way of dealing with that pressure.”
One goal of No Child Left Behind — that 100 percent of the country’s students meet state standards in math and reading by 2014 — is “unrealistic,” Pallas said, adding that NCLB needs to be revamped.
“Cheating is not a new phenomenon,” Pallas added. “What’s new is the more explicit system of powerful rewards and punishments tied to student performance.”
(This week, New York City announced it will permanently discontinue a bonus program that distributed $56 million in performance bonuses to teachers and other staff members over the last three years after a study found the bonuses had no positive effect on student performance or teachers’ attitudes toward their jobs.)
So far, the most widespread case is in Atlanta, where 50,000 students attend public schools. This month, Georgia Republican Gov. Nathan Deal released a report accusing 178 Atlanta teachers and principals at 44 schools — nearly half of the city’s schools — of cheating to raise their schools’ scores on state standardized tests. At one Atlanta elementary school, the report alleges, four educators gathered at a colleague’s home for a “changing party,” using answer sheets provided by a school official.
“Cheating was caused by a number of factors but primarily by the pressure to meet targets in the data-driven environment,” Deal’s office said, adding that “a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation” permeated the school district.
Beverly Hall, the Atlanta superintendent who retired June 30, knew about the cheating accusations, the report concluded, but ignored them or tried to cover them up. Hall has A”>apologized but denied any knowledge of cheating 2010 state audit, prompted by an analysis by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution showing some scores were statistically improbable, eventually led to the investigation.
Last week, Erroll Davis, Atlanta’s new superintendent, sent letters to the 178 employees implicated in the scandal, telling them to resign or face termination proceedings. Davis already accepted the resignation of the human resources chief and replaced four area superintendents and two principals. Some also face the possibility of criminal prosecution related to charges of destroying or altering documents, as well as the loss of their teaching licenses.
Davis is implementing a number of reforms including remedial help for students affected by the cheating, said district spokesman Keith Bromery. One way the district will try to identify such students is by looking for dramatic fluctuations in their test scores, he said.
“Fixing the cheating problem is merely the tip of the iceberg,”Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Maureen Downey quotes Atlanta School Board member Courtney English saying at a recent meeting: “Beneath that lies a far greater question — what our teachers, staff and employees actually believe about our kids.”
“We have to ask ourselves what did not happen in the classroom that allowed an adult to make a decision on behalf of a child that ‘I don’t think you can actually hit this bar,’” English is quote saying. “I think that is a very scary question, but I do think it is one we have to ask ourselves. Are our teachers getting enough support in the classroom to do the job? Are they, in fact, the right people in the classroom to do the job we have asked them to do?”
Verdaillia Turner, president of the 2,200-member Atlanta Federation of Teachers, a local of the American Federation of Teachers, said some of her members have refuted the allegations while others say investigators “badgered” them. She said her union was reviewing the cases and plans to defend some of its 50 members accused of cheating.
“We don’t condone cheating but when you put them in an environment of do or die they can decide whether or not they can die today or tomorrow,” Turner said.
“Schools have become testing factories,” Turner said. “We’re teaching to the test, not educating the individual child. The joy of cheating? What’s that? That’s over. Standardized tests reveal a minuscule (amount) of what a child knows. It’s not a proper measurement.”
The investigations into cheating stretch beyond Atlanta to other parts of the country.
Last week, the Houston Independent School District said it had found evidence that teachers at two elementary schools helped students change answers on standardized tests. The school district also is investigating suspicious erasures, in which answers were changed from wrong to right, in answer booklets as well as possible cheating at other schools.
In Michigan, the state’s education department announced in March that it was reviewing state test scores. The examination began after the Detroit Free Press reported improvements at 34 schools throughout the state that the newspaper report said were “statistically improbable” and should be investigated.
Education officials in Pennsylvania are reviewing an apparently overlooked 2009 report from a previous administration that cites possible cheating — questionable answer patterns and erasures — on state exams in dozens of school districts, including Philadelphia.
The U.S. Department of Education and the inspector general are investigating reports of cheating allegations in Washington, D.C. School officials there announced in May that 2010 test scores in three classrooms would be invalidated after a separate “investigation found evidence or a strong suspicion” of cheating. Also in May, the D.C. school district, which serves 45,000 students, released a list of possible testing procedure violations during the 2011 standardized tests in April.
Nathan Saunders, president of the Washington Teachers’ Union, said teacher firings tied to low test scores are having “a significant impact on the African-American community.”
“The majority of the (big-city) schools are filled with black and brown children,” Saunders said. “In Washington, D.C. it’s more than 90 percent. I work with teachers who have worked in communities for 25 years who are being forced out in the winter of their careers and being called ineffective. That’s a very painful thing. Many teachers are pillars of the black community. Black women teachers are church members. They support communities in ways that are fantastic.”
“The things public school teachers do are often not reflected in test scores,” Saunders continued. “They help these kids see hope when they don’t see hope in their communities or in their homes. The whole evaluation system is bias.”
But firing teachers, whether for cheating or because of low test scores, “doesn’t address the root of the problem,” Columbia’s Professor Aaron Pallas said, adding that most teachers don’t enter the profession with the intention of cheating.
“The root problems are the organizational pressures,” Pallas said. “What people are being held accountable for and what they can achieve through legitimate means. It’s fine to punish the individuals but that doesn’t address what led them to do it.”