When tests' cheaters are the teachers
Probe of Texas scores on high-stakes tests is the latest case in series of cheating incidents.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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 monitor cheating.