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Rotten apples: Coping with educators who cheat


The scandals have left some districts with huge budget shortfalls, not to mention a stigma that won’t go away any time soon—and local officials also face the prospect of federal sanctions.

While volunteering to help prepare for the start of classes, Alice Jonsson, whose son Jake began first grade at Toomer Elementary School in Atlanta this month, reflected on the city’s cheating scandal that erupted this past summer.

“My biggest concern is when the kids do well, they’re going to be perceived as cheaters. That’s heart-breaking,” she said as she cut paper to create a bulletin board for faculty members at the school.

In Atlanta and elsewhere, students are returning to school for what is likely to be a tough year amid cheating scandals that have forced thousands of students to seek remedial tutoring because they were promoted based on falsified test scores.

The scandals have left some districts with huge budget shortfalls, not to mention a stigma that won’t go away any time soon—and local officials also face the prospect of further sanctions from the federal government.

In this special report:

Fallout in Atlanta … and elsewhere

Why do educators cheat?

How investigators root out cheating

Consequences for educators—and districts

What states and districts can do

Experts say these high-profile cheating scandals have led to soul-searching within other urban districts that have seen a rapid rise in test scores. And in districts of all sizes, many stakeholders are left wondering how to spur reforms without creating a culture of fear that can cause normally ethical professionals to take such desperate measures as compromising the integrity of the educational process.

Next page: Fallout in Atlanta … and elsewhere

Fallout in Atlanta … and elsewhere

In Atlanta, the site of the largest such scandal, new Superintendent Erroll Davis has vowed to clean up the mess. More than 100 teachers were removed from classrooms less than a month before classes started, accused of spending nights huddled in back rooms changing the answers on students’ tests in a scathing report on the state’s investigation released in July.

At Toomer, one of 44 schools named in the report, investigators said teachers either prompted students to choose the correct answer or looked at test booklets in advance to be sure students were ready for the questions. At least one teacher reportedly arranged desks so that lower-performing students were seated next to those who excelled, so the struggling students could look at their peers’ exams.

Principal Nicole Evans Jones, who took over in November 2009 after the alleged cheating occurred, said the educators named in the report have all been replaced or left Toomer on their own. Her focus now is on making sure students and parents are confident in the school.

That won’t be easy, though. Jonsson said she worries the cheating scandal is a “cancer that does damage for many years.”

Atlanta officials say thousands of students—mostly in the city’s poorest neighborhoods—will need extra tutoring and after-school help this year, because they were promoted based on inflated test scores. Meanwhile, criminal investigations are ongoing in three counties, and the federal Education Department (ED) is looking into the cheating allegations as well.

In this special report:

Fallout in Atlanta … and elsewhere

Why do educators cheat?

How investigators root out cheating

Consequences for educators—and districts

What states and districts can do

The report named 178 educators, 82 of whom confessed. The testing problems first came to light after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that some scores were statistically improbable. The state released audits of test results after the newspaper published its analysis.

The district has placed more than 130 of the educators named in the state’s report on paid leave pending hearings, while another 40 or so have either quit or retired, officials said. But the city’s schools face a budget shortfall of up to $10 million, in part because of the hefty price tag that comes with keeping the implicated educators who haven’t resigned or retired on payroll; they can’t be fired until they’re given due process.

On top of that, some schools also could owe hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal funding they received for good test performance.

In Washington, D.C., the test results for three schools have been tossed out over proven cases of cheating. The city’s inspector general began investigating after USA Today reported in March that more than 100 D.C. schools had unusually high rates of erasures on exams between 2008 and 2010. Now, federal investigators have joined that probe, The Washington Post reports.

Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania Department of Education is looking into a report that resurfaced this summer, highlighting possible cheating on state standardized tests in at least 35 districts and noting aberrant scores in dozens of others.

The forensic analysis of the 2009 Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) results does not assert that cheating occurred, but it says certain answer patterns and erasures make the results suspicious. Among the districts identified as having multiple testing irregularities are the Philadelphia, Hazleton, Connellsville, and Lancaster schools, while many other districts were cited for one or two inconsistencies.

Next page: Why do educators cheat?

Why do educators cheat?

Experts say many districts face enormous pressure to meet the testing standards they need to avoid penalties under the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation, or to ensure positive results for teachers who are rewarded based on student performance.

In an indication of how far some Atlanta public schools went to raise test scores in the nation’s largest-ever cheating scandal, investigators concluded that nearly half the city’s schools allowed the cheating to go unchecked for as long as a decade, beginning in 2001.

Atlanta administrators pressured to maintain high scores under NCLB punished or fired those who reported anything amiss and created a culture of “fear, intimidation, and retaliation,” according to the report. One teacher told investigators the district was “run like the mob.”

“Everybody was in fear,” another teacher said in the report. “It is not that the teachers are bad people and want to do it. It is that they are scared.”

For teachers and their bosses, the stakes are high: Schools that fail to meet Adequate Yearly Progress goals under the federal law can face steep sanctions that include being forced to offer extra tutoring, allowing parents to transfer children to better schools, or firing teachers and administrators who don’t pass muster.

Bob Schaeffer of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, which works to end abuses in standardized testing and wants changes made to NCLB, said many observers are wondering where the “next Atlanta” will be.

In this special report:

Fallout in Atlanta … and elsewhere

Why do educators cheat?

How investigators root out cheating

Consequences for educators—and districts

What states and districts can do

“Because of Atlanta, the media and policy makers are going back and looking at concerns raised about their states,” Schaeffer said. “When you see a story like this and see the incredible impact of the confessions, you start to look and say, ‘Hey, is there something comparable going on here?’”

Schaeffer said he began tracking cheating in the early 1990s, when he’d see two or three stories a year about educators breaking the rules on tests. “Now we’re seeing a couple or three a week in big, big places,” he said. “The pressure is so high to boost test scores by any means possible that more and more educators break and cross the ethical line.”

Mark Simon, the father of a D.C. high school student, blamed the problem on a school culture that overemphasizes the importance of standardized tests.

“When you have that kind of climate in schools,” he said, “it’s a setup for people doing the wrong thing.”

But that’s too simple a response, say those who support federal efforts to ensure accountability in schools.

“Students don’t generally like tests, and a certain number of them cheat. Yet it’s a rare educator who would advocate eliminating tests or not including them in a student’s grade. Why, then, does each new scandal involving cheating teachers and administrators lead to a fresh round of calls to eliminate tests, or at minimum not make them count for anything?” wrote The Los Angeles Times in an Aug. 3 editorial.

“It’s … true that the parameters for what counts as adequate improvement under [NCLB] are out of line with reality,” the newspaper continued. “In addition, critics rightly point out that states’ annual standardized tests are limited measurements of what students have learned; they were never designed to count for half of a teacher’s performance evaluation, as several states and school districts are doing. Yes, those problems must be fixed … but not because they might contribute to cheating. Academic dishonesty is unacceptable no matter the cause.”

The editorial concluded: “Cheating is wrong; accountability isn’t.”

Next page: How investigators root out cheating

How investigators root out cheating

Forensic analysts called to investigate alleged cheating on school tests typically analyze eraser patterns and look for abnormalities. They search for indications that an educator erased incorrect answers and filled in correct answers, for example, while making it appear like the student did the erasing and answer selecting.

An investigation also will look for highly unlikely anomalies in which the statistical probability of the unlikely results being random coincidence is exorbitantly small.

In Pennsylvania, the PSSA is given annually in various grades to assess math and reading skills. Minnesota-based Data Recognition Corp. analyzed scores from 2009 and found hundreds of aberrant results. In its report, it singled out about 90 schools with the most red flags.

In this special report:

Fallout in Atlanta … and elsewhere

Why do educators cheat?

How investigators root out cheating

Consequences for educators—and districts

What states and districts can do

Based on statistical properties, the report said the suspicious results were “highly improbable.”

It noted that any possible fraud could have been perpetrated by students, teachers, or other officials. But the company also stressed that the scores could have been obtained fairly.

“Their scores, response pattern, and number of erasures were aberrant, from a statistical probability perspective,” the report states. “This does not imply that the school or student engaged in inappropriate testing activity.”

Next page: Consequences for educators … and districts

Consequences for educators … and districts

Educators named in these investigations could face criminal charges ranging from tampering with state documents to lying to investigators. Many could lose their teaching licenses.

Atlanta school officials have pledged that the educators still working in the district will be removed from their jobs, but that process could take some time as staffers trudge through the state’s 800-page report.

“We’re used to having to change some staff during the summer,” district spokesman Keith Bromery said. “In an organization this big and transient, you do have a turnover. We’re perfectly capable of addressing that.”

All educators named in Georgia’s investigation will be referred to the state’s Professional Standards Commission, which licenses Georgia teachers, to see whether they should have their certification suspended or revoked for changing answers on students’ tests and helping students answer questions.

Atlanta officials say the accused teachers no longer will work with children, but it could take months to determine who should be fired from the district and who will lose their teaching license. The district could spend hundreds of thousands of dollars paying the salaries of educators who ultimately might be fired, but who—for now—have been reassigned to office jobs far from students while administrators work through the process.

“When it comes to personnel actions, this district follows due process,” Bromery said, adding that such decisions will be made on “a case-by-case basis.”

Some educators still will be able to collect their pensions even if they are charged with a crime. If they are convicted, they could lose their pensions or have a portion taken away.

In this special report:

Fallout in Atlanta … and elsewhere

Why do educators cheat?

How investigators root out cheating

Consequences for educators—and districts

What states and districts can do

It can take years for educators to lose their teaching licenses, depending on how much they appeal the decision by the Professional Standards Commission. Some cases make it all the way to the state Supreme Court, said Gary Walker, head of the commission’s ethics division.

Three of the commission’s investigators will handle these cases full time, Walker said, adding that he hopes to have each case presented to the commission for a vote by December—but educators can appeal to the state attorney general’s office and then to the courts.

“We’ve had some cases, depending on how long the appeals take, that were three or four or five years,” Walker said. “It’s not uncommon to go two years.”

In the meantime, those educators can stay on the job and collect a paycheck, or they can move to other districts or other states to teach. They also can work at private schools, some of which don’t require a teaching license.

ED also works with states where cheating has occurred to ensure that officials address the issues. If a state’s or district’s response is not considered adequate, the department can withhold funding or put conditions on the money, though this move is rare.

Next page: What states and districts can do

What states and districts can do

Education Secretary Arne Duncan called the cheating scandals “unfortunate” and said they highlight the need for more transparency in education. Pennsylvania state Rep. Michael McGeehan, a Democrat, has suggested that his state create a “whistleblower hotline” for educators to report allegations of wrongdoing without fear of retaliation.

The Philadelphia schools are willing to investigate the cheating allegations, but spokeswoman Jamilah Fraser said in a statement that such probes are difficult because of teacher turnover, student transience, and the vagaries of memory.

The district has received about 10 to 15 accusations of breaches in test security in each of the past three years, and a few have been substantiated through internal investigations, Fraser said. Alleged violations could range from “low-level” offenses, such as failing to cover materials during a testing period, to more serious ones.

She also noted the district has a “very robust test monitoring protocol.” Approximately 75 percent of schools receive unannounced visits to random classrooms during PSSA testing, Fraser said.

In this special report:

Fallout in Atlanta … and elsewhere

Why do educators cheat?

How investigators root out cheating

Consequences for educators—and districts

What states and districts can do

Atlanta Superintendent Davis said the office that receives ethics complaints now will report directly to the school board rather than to the district’s human resources division. State investigators found that the ethics office didn’t adequately look into complaints and tried to cover up the extent of cheating allegations in the district.

Any classroom where test scores increased by unusual or unreasonable amounts will be investigated by district officials automatically, he said, adding that he will require annual ethics training, likely online, for all 6,000 of the district’s employees.

“I do not accept that a focus on performance causes people to cheat,” he said. “We must continue to demand performance. I want excellence as a standard at every level.”

Atlanta parent James Palmer moved his kindergartener, Leo, to a different school than where he’s zoned, because he worried about the culture at Benteen Elementary, one of the schools cited in the state’s cheating report. Palmer said the final straw for him was when allegations emerged that whistleblowers at Benteen were punished or retaliated against.

“It’s a colossal breach of the public trust,” Palmer said of the scandal. “I don’t know if it can ever be regained. But as a parent who loves living in Atlanta, in spite of the terrible circumstances that happened, we have a responsibility to still work to make our community schools better.”

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