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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Caught Cheating in School (and Who's Really to Blame)

The Pressure's On

In 2005, every single fourth- and sixth-grade student at City Day Community School in Dayton, Ohio, flunked the math portion of a statewide assessment test. That landed City Day an "academic emergency" rating, meaning state intervention or even takeover. But 2006 brought a stunning turnaround: 100 percent of the school's seventh-grade class, and 59 percent of its fifth graders, passed. Same test, same kids. It seemed too good to be true—and it was.

A few months later, the Dayton Daily News reported that 44 questions on a practice test were nearly identical to the ones in the state test the kids took a week later. When proctors came in to monitor the next year's tests, scores plummeted.

Clearly there was massive cheating at City Day. But the students didn't rig the tests—the teachers did the dirty work. (The school's superintendent denied the charges but was later fired.)

Cheating among teachers has become epidemic in America's schools, with cases from New York to California, Florida to South Dakota, Tennessee to Maryland. "It's more prevalent than anyone wants to admit," says UNC-Chapel Hill professor Gregory Cizek, an expert on cheating in schools. "Teachers are paid to be role models. It sends a really destructive message to kids."

Many experts say this disgraceful behavior has surged due to the 2001 No Child Left Behind law, which annually tests academic performance and can punish struggling schools that don't show improvement. Feeling this heat, some teachers resort to showing students test questions in advance or—if you can believe it—changing their answers after the fact.

Of course, the vast majority of teachers would never dream of cheating, but "when tests are all that matter, teachers feel pressure to boost scores, and some people cross the ethical line," says Robert Schaeffer of FairTest, a group opposed to standardized testing. Cheaters are siphoning off taxpayer dollars meant to reward the real achievers.

That was the infuriating story at Houston's Forest Brook High School. The governor awarded the low-income neighborhood school $165,000 for its rising test scores in 2006. But soon after, a Dallas Morning News exposé found strong evidence of organized cheating in dozens of schools and suspicious results in hundreds more.

Texas hired a firm to audit the results, and Forest Brook was among the most suspected of organized cheating. No wrongdoing was ever proved, but when last year's testing was monitored by outsiders, scores at Forest Brook sank like a rock. In California, another newspaper investigation found that teachers had encouraged cheating in more than 120 schools over the previous three years by letting kids use calculators and maps during tests.

One of the worst cases occurred in Uniondale, New York, where hundreds of tests were systematically changed after they were handed in. It was so bad, the state simply threw out the entire year's test results.

Administrators, too, have a lot to answer for when they look the other way. After fourth-grade math test scores in a Camden, New Jersey, school soared from rock-bottom to best in the state, no one asked why. Except The Philadelphia Inquirer, whose report led to an investigation that found "adult interference" had boosted scores.

With money and jobs at stake, the pressure is on. And anyone who raises a red flag is at risk. The former principal of Dayton's City Day says he was fired a day after questioning the test scores.

Analyzing tests from two years ago, an outside firm flagged suspicious test results in 700 Texas schools. Most schools were cleared, though the state did acknowledge problems at some (two are confirmed, and seven are still under investigation). But in the tradition of the fox guarding the henhouse, its conclusion was based mostly on assurances from the same school officials who might be held accountable. So it's not surprising The Dallas Morning News found that more than 350 answer sheets had suspicious answer patterns.

Once a Cheater, Always a Cheater?

Maybe some of the teachers who cheat got their degrees through fraud in the first place. In recent years, and in many places, wannabe teachers have sent ringers to take their certification exams. So several states, including Georgia, Oklahoma, Illinois and California, now require fingerprints to prove identity. In a climate like this, maybe we shouldn't be surprised that young Americans have stunningly casual attitudes toward cheating. According to one 2006 study, 60 percent of high school students admitted to cheating on a test in the past year.

Cizek worries that we're just not taking cheating seriously enough. "These days, a lot of people cheat and it seems kind of okay. When a baseball player uses steroids, he says you pay me to hit home runs, not to be a role model. And that's true to some extent. But teachers can't say that." And of course, kids know about all the other cheaters—Enron executives, millionaire tax dodgers, and the usual spate of sleazebags that have ripped off almost $9 billion in Iraq.

At least some good has come from all this bad: School systems are getting wise to the amount of cheating going on. More and more states, including New Jersey and South Carolina, are watching for suspicious jumps in school performance. Others have added oversight like outside monitors at problem schools.

Parents should make sure their state and local officials are aware of these problems and demand to know what they're doing about it. After all, if we let the cheaters get away with it, we wind up cheating ourselves.

What YOU Can Do

Ask your school if it can:
1) Require a code of ethics specifically prohibiting cheating, to be signed by students and teachers. If caught cheating, a student may be immediately suspended and risk expulsion, and a teacher may have his or her license revoked.

2) Hire independent monitors to proctor major exams.

If you're still not satisfied, ask your state educational official for a statistical audit by a reputable test-security firm. They look for oddities in test answers.

Michael Crowley is a senior editor at The New Republic.

Outraged? Write to Michael Crowley at outrageous@rd.com.

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