Shockingly Widespread Standardized Test Cheating in Schools in 39 States


This week in Atlanta, the trial of a dozen former educators and administrators charged with conspiring to manipulate test scores in Atlanta’s public schools got underway in Fulton County Superior Court. Characterized by the prosecuting district attorney, Fani Willis, as “a widespread, cleverly disguised conspiracy to illegally inflate test scores and create a false impression of academic success for many students in the Atlanta Public Schools system,” the case could earn its defendants as many as 35 years behind bars, should they be found guilty of the charges against them.

The Atlanta case has gained national attention in large part because of the scope of the cheating documented and the number of educators implicated (initially, more than 180 educators at 44 schools were involved, according to the Atlantic). But is Atlanta the singular case of a school system gone awry in a sea of otherwise compliant districts? Or is the systemic cheating alleged in this case shockingly prevalent in America’s schools – far beyond what most of us can imagine?

According to the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest), it’s time to prepare to be shocked. The organization has recently compiled data indicating that the scandal in Atlanta is “just the tip of the iceberg” when it comes to cheating on standardized tests in our nation’s schools. Specifically, FairTest has found documented cases of cheating, and in some cases, systematic manipulation of scores, in 39 states and the District of Columbia, over the last five years alone. The organization has also identified more than 60 methods administrators and teachers have used to alter student scores on these tests, from urging low-scorers to be absent the day of the test, to shouting out and otherwise indicating correct answers during testing.

AlterNet’s education editor, Elizabeth Hines, spoke with FairTest’s director of public dducation, Bob Schaeffer, to dig deeper into the FairTest findings. “It is a very ugly story,” Schaeffer says, one he believes we’ll be talking about long after the jury in Atlanta has reached its verdict. 

Elizabeth Hines: Lots of people have heard about the cheating allegations in Atlanta and the trial that is taking place there. But what you are asserting is that the kind of cheating we are seeing in Atlanta is actually taking place all over the country, on a much wider scale. Can you tell us a little about what you found? 

Bob Schaeffer: The Atlanta cheating scandal may be unprecedented in terms of the scope and number of people involved, but a FairTest review of state reports and news stories over the past five academic years has found confirmed cases of cheating in 39 states, the District of Columbia and Department of Defense Schools. In some cases, there are only one or two, or a handful of isolated cases in states, but in probably a dozen other jurisdictions, there are widespread, systematic patterns. 

For example, in Philadelphia, where an investigation is still ongoing, two more former school principals were arrested last week and charged with orchestrating cheating in their schools. I think that brings to eight the number there. 

In El Paso, the former superintendant, I believe he is now in a halfway house, having served a jail sentence, courtesy of the FBI, which discovered a systematic pattern of excluding likely low scores (which in El Paso means recent Mexican immigrants) from their schools, to avoid having them tested, and/or jumping kids over tested grades in order to keep them out of the test scores.

[In Ohio], an ongoing investigation by the State has found that leaders of the Columbus, Ohio School System have manipulated school records by arbitrarily declaring kids who were likely to score low as absent or un-enrolled on the days on which tests were administered. So the techniques [used] to artificially boost scores were different than those in Atlanta, where erasures appeared to be the most common behavior, but we also found about sixty ways in which schools have improperly, and sometimes illegally, inflated scores on standardized tests. 

EH: Is the cheating you're documenting the result of top-down directives from school administrators? Or is this the result of individual teachers taking matters into their own hands?

BS: Both, and then some. We have seen every type of cheating pattern orchestrated across the nation, from seemingly top-down conspiracies, as is being charged in Atlanta, to principals appearing the lead the effort to fake scores, as is the case in Philadelphia and Waterbury, Connecticut, to isolated individual teachers manipulating scores in their own classrooms. To the people who say that these are only isolated instances, I wish that were true. But when you have cases in 39 states and the District of Columbia, and in a number of them dozens and dozens of cases, it is more than an isolated outbreak. It’s an epidemic. 

EH: You mentioned before that you’ve found about 60 different ways schools were suspected of cheating on these tests. Can you share a few more of those with us? 

BS: Well, among other things, posting correct answers on bulletin boards or whiteboards in the classrooms. Teachers or proctors who walk up and down the aisles during testing times, either pointing to the correct answers on the sheet, or saying, “Johnny, you better check the answer to number three,” and unless Johnny is quite dull, Johnny gets the message about that. From, as charged in Atlanta, erasure parties, to—again in Atlanta —school administrators breaking into the supposedly secure rooms where tests were stored, slitting open the blister-pack-sealed exams with an X-Acto knife or a razor blade, taking out and copying tests in advance, putting the test forms back in the blister-pack, resealing it with a lighter or a cigarette, so the plastic remelts together, and then giving copies of that test form in advance to teachers.

And also the kinds of things I described in Columbus and El Paso, where kids who scored low are eradicated from the records. The ways people have cheated is limited only by the human imagination. 

It’s an unfortunate part of the human condition: when people believe that their careers and livelihoods are going to be judged on the results of these tests, some feel pressured to cross the ethical line. And what they are doing is wrong, it is immoral, and in many places it is illegal. But it is understandable. 

EH: Why do you think schools feel so compelled to cheat? Why not just let the chips fall where they may: let the kids take the tests, and see what happens? 

BS: The politicians and ideologues who have established the testing system have created goals and expectations that are simply unreasonable. But because those test score targets are being used to judge teachers, students and schools—to make the high stakes decisions for kids, like grade promotion and graduation, and for teachers, like bonuses, promotions, and increasingly, job retention—some feel compelled to get the scores that they need by hook or by crook.

The truth is that, in every profession, some people have cheated to gain benefits. Journalists have won the Pulitzer Prize by fabricating stories. Nonprofit groups have gotten front page stories by making up the data in reports. With sufficient pressure, there is no group of humans in which some won’t cross the ethical line, if you ratchet up the pressure enough. 

If you read the indictment and the governor’s investigative report on the Atlanta case, people’s jobs and salaries and self-esteem and psychological honors depended on getting scores up. That is the message that the superintendent, Beverly Hall, conveyed there. It is the message that the superintendent, Michelle Rhee, conveyed in Washington, D.C. where there was also a significant pattern of cheating, and she made it clear to principals, if the scores didn’t go up, principals would be fired, and they were. 

EH: So how does this problem get fixed? What do we do to ensure healthier school environments for kids, and for teachers?

BS: Well, the cheating scandals are one reason among many why the U.S. needs to adopt a new direction in school assessment.  We need to move away from testing overuse and misuse, and towards systems of performance-based assessment, in which we look at the real work students do over time, which is much harder to game. It is easy to erase answers on a bubble sheet and put in the right ones; it is very hard to fabricate a portfolio of essays and science projects and book reports and teacher-made tests that shows what a kid knows and can do. 

So, in part, this is a function of the types of measures we rely on, and in part it is a reflection of what’s called Campbell’s Law in sociology, which says that the more you use any statistical indicator for decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption. We can see that elsewhere in our society: when the federal government said “We’re going to publish airline on-time schedules,” they didn’t start making faster trips on airlines; they changed the schedules so that the flights appeared to be on time. When the federal government said, “We’re going enforce auto mileage standards,” car manufacturers started manipulating that game. It is a law of human nature that, when the equivalent of test scores become the sole goal, they end up being distorted. 

So we need multiple measures of student performance. We need systems that depend not on one-shot, multiple-choice tests, but on performance assessment.

EH: You’ve been in the education field for many years, and with FairTest since 1985. How would you rate our current educational environment? Do you see things getting better, or does it just seem as if things are getting worse? 

BS: Well, actually both. The reason that we are seeing an explosion of resistance and reform movements, seeking to replace standardized tests, is because the system has gotten so bad, in terms of testing, at least. Applying a corporate model to improving schools has been an abject failure, starting with No Child Left Behind, and intensified under Race to the Top and NCLB waivers under Obama and Duncan. We have made test scores the sole coin of the realm in judging educational quality, and that has had a severe distorting impact, of which test cheating is one reflection.

But the optimist in me sees the huge and growing national movement to roll back testing overkill that has exploded around the nation, and had successes in places like Texas, and Florida, and Virginia, places where you wouldn’t expect progress to have been made—and that gives us cause for hope. 

You know, right now we are in a situation where testing is not an issue that splits on conventional political or ideological lines. It is not Democrats vs. Republicans, or even conservatives vs. progressives. It is elites, policy makers, their corporate funders, and a handful of major corporations, plus big media editorial boards, on the one hand, vs. the people closest to the classrooms—parents, students, teachers, school administrators, in many cases, local school boards, who are elected locally and are in school classrooms regularly. They understand that the test policy is now insane, but the people inside the Beltway in D.C., and around state capitols, seem to be reacting to lip service, a little bit of reform, and doubling down on failure. 

There’s a long, long way to go, but we are making progress, because people opt out, and pass resolutions, and elect better public officials. All together, we are making a big change.

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