Investigation Reveals Cheating on High-Stakes Tests Across the Nation
Last year, a major investigation found that 178 Atlanta principals, teachers, and other educators tampered with student tests. Having investigated its own cheating scandal so thoroughly, Atlanta has every incentive to shine a light on cheating in other cities, showing that cheating is happening elsewhere—and reminding us that most other cities aren't as vigilant about investigating. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has done a major investigation (so major it involved four named reporters—Heather Vogell, John Perry, Alan Judd, and M.B. Pell) of indications of cheating in schools across the country. And I do mean across the country:
Overall, 196 of the nation’s 3,125 largest school districts had enough suspect tests that the odds of the results occurring by chance alone were worse than one in 1,000.
For 33 of those districts, the odds were worse than one in a million.
High-poverty urban schools were also more likely than other schools to have improbable scores, but indications of cheating showed up in all types of schools. Suspicious scoring patterns were twice as likely to show up at charter schools than at traditional public schools. Those patterns could be pretty blatant:
In Houston, for instance, test results for entire grades of students jumped two, three or more times the amount expected in one year, the analysis shows. When children moved to a new grade the next year, their scores plummeted — a finding that suggests the gains were not due to learning.
In a city that takes test scores more seriously than cheating, like Washington, D.C., that sort of thing can lead to the firing of a non-cheating teacher who winds up with students whose previous year's scores were artificially elevated. But Washington is not the only school district that is reluctant to fully investigate. In Houston, for instance, "twice in the past seven years, the AJC found, Houston exhibited fluctuations with virtually no chance of occurring except through tampering." But:
Through Jason Spencer, a spokesman for the district, Houston officials questioned whether cheating caused all of the unusual score changes the AJC found. He said the district doesn’t think its pay-for-performance plan has made cheating more likely.
High-stakes testing leads to cheating (and terrible teaching practices even where there's no cheating). We know this. Yet officials straight up to President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan keep promoting testing. And officials at the district level deny there's cheating rather than facing up to how widespread it's become. But if we acknowledge that high-stakes testing is making cheating the new normal, it becomes clear that the answer is not playing whack-a-mole with individual instances of cheating, but addressing the bad policy at its root.