A massive new cheating scandal has erupted in the United States, possibly involving thousands of schools across the country. At the weekend, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published an analysis of test results for 69,000 public schools which found high concentrations of suspect mathematics or reading scores in nearly 200 school systems.
The allegations come at a time when the US federal and state governments are placing increasing weight on school test results to drive education policy. Schools can be closed; principals and teachers fired; teachers evaluated, paid and publicly ranked all on the basis of test results. There is huge pressure on schools to deliver better results.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s analysis found that test results in hundreds of cities followed a similar pattern to those which entangled Atlanta in the biggest cheating scandal ever in the US, a scandal also exposed by the newspaper. After a two year investigation into the allegations initiated by the governor of Georgia, an official report found at least 178 Atlanta educators – principals, teachers and other staff – took part in widespread test-tampering. Cheating was confirmed in 44 of 56 schools examined.
The new analysis has found that 196 of the nation’s 3,125 largest school districts had enough suspect tests that the odds of the results occurring by chance alone were worse than one in 1,000. The analysis shows that in 2010 alone, the grade-wide reading scores of 24,618 children nationwide swung so improbably that the odds of it happening by chance were less than one in 10,000. As a result, tens of thousands of children may have been denied extra help by the inflated test scores.
Other discoveries by the newspaper team were:
• Improbable scores were twice as likely to appear in charter schools as regular schools. Charters, which receive public money, can face intense pressure as supposed laboratories of innovation that, in theory, live or die by their academic performance;
• The newspaper found changes in test scores that were statistically improbable in nearly 20 cities, with swings in scores that were virtually impossible. In nine districts, scores careened so unpredictably that the odds of such dramatic shifts occurring without an intervention such as tampering were worse than one in 1 billion. In some cities, there were so many dramatic shifts in scores that the odds of that happening by chance are one in 10 billion;
•In some cities, the results for entire grades of students jumped two, three or more times the amount expected in one year. The next year, when children moved to a new grade, their scores plummeted;
•Though high-poverty city schools were more likely to have suspicious tests, improbable scores also showed up in an exclusive public school for the gifted on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
The newspaper said that the analysis it has conducted doesn’t prove cheating, but it reveals that test scores in hundreds of cities followed a pattern that was found previously in Atlanta to indicate cheating in multiple schools.
Cheating is one of few plausible explanations for why scores would change so dramatically for so many students in a district, said James Wollack, a University of Wisconsin-Madison expert in testing and cheating who reviewed the newspaper’s analysis. “I can say with some confidence,” he said, “cheating is something you should be looking at.”
The newspaper said that the analysis suggests a broad betrayal of schoolchildren across the nation. As Atlanta learned after cheating was uncovered in half its elementary and middle schools last year, falsified test results deny struggling students access to extra help to which they are entitled, and erode confidence in a vital public institution.
The findings come as government officials, reeling from recent scandals, are beginning to acknowledge that a troubling amount of score manipulation occurs. Though the federal government requires the tests, it has not mandated screening scores for anomalies or investigating those that turn up.
In some of the nation’s biggest cities, district school administrators preach “data-driven” decision-making and linked test scores to bonuses or principal hiring and firing decisions. The Los Angeles and New York city school districts have even started using test results to publicly rank the performance of teachers. Many administrators boast of taking a corporate approach to education, focusing on student test achievement as the single most important measure of success.
Some testing experts have been critical of complacency by school district leaders in monitoring for cheating. James Wollack, the Wisconsin testing expert, said there is room to improve. “Some of the investigations that have taken place in the past have been less than thorough, have been less exhaustive than they should have been,” he said. “Cheating went undetected as a result.”
Districts don’t have a big incentive to unearth ugly truths about their own testing programs. What’s more, most screening methods miss instances of cheating by setting high thresholds.
The findings also point to a universal truth: Hold people accountable to standards, benchmarks or quotas that they feel are unrelenting, unrealistic and unfair and some will cheat.
“We are putting way too much pressure on people to raise scores at a very large clip without holding them accountable for how they are doing it,” said Daniel Koretz, a Harvard Graduate School of Education testing expert.
The findings call into question the approach that dominated federal education policy over the past decade: Set a continuously rising bar and leave schools and districts essentially alone to figure out how to surmount it – or face penalties.
“If you want to keep your job, keep your school out of the news, keep winning awards and advance in your career, you need to make your school look better,” said Joseph Hawkins, a former testing official with the Montgomery County, Maryland., school system.
Koretz, the Harvard expert, said cheating is one extreme on a continuum that, at its other end, includes gaming the test in legal ways – such as through test-prep drills – that don’t significantly increase students’ overall knowledge or skills.
Even as state test scores have soared, students’ performance on national and international exams has been more mediocre. Cheating and gaming may help explain why.
“The big picture is: Are we seeing apparent gains in student achievement that are bogus?” Koretz asked.
Education historian and New York University Professor Diane Ravitch said the incessant focus on testing has eroded the quality of instruction. “All of this is predictable,” said Ravitch, a former top U.S. Department of Education official who in recent years reversed her support for testing and tough accountability measures. “We’re warping the education system in order to meet artificial targets.”
This article is a summary of reports from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on 23 March 2012.