When tests' cheaters are the teachers
Probe of Texas scores on high-stakes tests is the latest case in series of
By Kris Axtman | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
January 11, 2005
HOUSTON - The "Texas Miracle" that helped launch the nationwide
accountability movement in education is facing new doubts as allegations
surface about possible cheating on test scores. Last week the Houston
Independent School District (HISD) - one of the nation's largest - announced
an investigation of "suspicious" results on 2004 statewide tests.
The wrangling is being closely watched by districts across the country that
are bound by the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, which was modeled
in part after the success of Houston schools.
Critics say the possible cheating scandal, and the idea of educators willing
to go to such lengths to raise their schools' scores, is further proof that
high-stakes testing doesn't work. Supporters say the instances of cheating
on such tests are very rare and can be found in every profession.
Whatever the reality, cheating on standardized tests has been making the
news with increasing frequency. From Boston to Florida to California, school
districts have been investigating claims that educators are providing
students with answers, changing answers after the test is over, and giving
students extra time.
"The No Child Left Behind Act, which has some very solid goals, when
implemented creates an awful lot of trouble in the schools," says John
Fremer, a testing expert with 40 years of experience. While he says cheating
has been around for as long as there have been tests, the difference in the
past few years is that teachers and administrators are heavily involved,
"something that's so alien to the concept of teaching."
Some recent examples:
Earlier this month, an Indiana third-grade teacher was suspended after
being accused of tapping students on the shoulder when they marked wrong
answers - the state's third alleged incident in as many years.
In September, Mississippi threw out portions of test scores at nine
schools after discovering more than two dozen cases of alleged cheating. One
fifth-grade teacher was fired after allegedly helping students on the
writing portion of the test.
And in July, nine Arizona school districts invalidated portions of their
test scores after teachers allegedly either read sections of the test to
students or gave students extra time to finish. It was the state's 21st case
of cheating since 2002.
Such troubles, though often isolated incidents, are leading school districts
to take action.
In Ohio, teachers are required to sign a code of ethics and are warned that
if they are caught cheating, their licenses may be revoked. Kentucky uses
six different versions of the exam in one classroom to cut down on teachers
"teaching to the test." In Mesa, Ariz., the school district hires retired
principals to wander among classrooms, monitoring the tests. And in South
Carolina and four other states, Dr. Fremer's test-security firm has been
brought in to analyze student answer sheets for patterns of cheating.
The problem, say many education experts, is that the tests have been tied to
teachers' job contacts and bonuses.
"Once the outcome of these tests started to matter, was it any surprise that
teachers began to cheat?" asks Steven Levitt, an economics professor at the
University of Chicago. "And I think the other side is that the risk reward
looks fairly good. The chances of being caught are tiny."
Dr. Levitt analyzed data from Chicago public schools and estimates that
serious cases of teacher or principal cheating occur in about 5 percent of
elementary school classrooms. He and a colleague from Harvard University
created an algorithm for detecting teacher cheating that combines
information on unexpected test-score fluctuations and suspicious patterns of
student answers. The Chicago School District now uses it every year to
Experts agree that some of what is dubbed cheating may boil down to
confusion over the rules or blurring of ethical line - such as teachers' use
of extremely similar practice exams or leaving study aids on the wall during
And while there may be a few deliberate cheaters, overall the testing system
is working very well, says Jay Greene, a senior fellow at the Manhattan
Institute for Policy Research in New York. "I liken it to the income-tax
system. Everyone knows someone who has cheated on their income taxes, but
overall the system works pretty much as designed," he says.
Dr. Greene says the high-stakes tests are doing what they're supposed to do:
making sure kids learn the material. But other experts say even that is
compromised by teachers narrowing their curriculum to what they know will be
If an exam asks who the 18th president of the United States was, for
instance, the idea is that the child should know who all the presidents
were, not just the 18th.
"Cheating is not the most fundamental problem. It's the canary in the coal
mine," says Daniel Koretz, who teaches educational measurement at Harvard
University. The coal mine, he says, is the "dumbing down" of education to
get the desired results.
"I think we are in desperate need of accountability in schools, and tests
have to be a part of that," he says. "But it's a mistake to do it this way,
to set arbitrary targets and expect schools to meet them." Under the No
Child Left Behind Act, states have 12 years to bring children up to academic
proficiency or lose federal funding.
Back in Houston, the cheating scandal was uncovered by a Dallas Morning News
analysis, which found surprising gaps in almost 400 of 7,700 Texas public
schools - instances of students earning some of the state's lowest scores in
reading, but its highest in math, for instance, or classes that ranked in
the state's top 10 percent in reading one year, only to sink to the bottom
10 percent in the next.
That's what happened at Wesley Elementary, a Houston school that,
ironically, had been featured on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and cited by
President Bush for its turnaround in the 1990s.
HISD has acted quickly, creating an Office of Inspector General to look into
the allegations. "We must administer a testing process with total
integrity," said Superintendent Abe Saavedra at a news conference last week.
"And on those few occasions when someone decides to violate the rules, HISD
will take swift and decisive action to stop it."
But cheating won't stop until the high-stakes testing system is thrown out,
says Linda McSpadden McNeil, an education professor at Rice University who
has studied the issue extensively. She believes No Child Left Behind is
treating education like a business, with strangers managing schools
"You could have a great arts program, an unsafe playground, your ceiling
falling in, or national merit scholars," says Dr. McNeil. "But all they look
at is the passing rate of the children in your building."
The new regulations have had the worst impact on minority schools, she says,
many of which are considered "low performing;" under pressure to get their
scores up, these schools were the first to dump traditional curriculum and
do test prep almost exclusively.
"That is not adding up to any cumulative knowledge," she says. "The No Child
Left Behind legislation is really a very expensive ruse to keep from having
to make the serious investment to make our schools really good schools.
That's the biggest way the system cheats."