Friday, April 13, 2012

Cheating our children: Suspicious school test scores across the nation

STOP THE PRESSES!!!  The Atlanta Journal Constitution, which uncovered the widespread cheating in Atlanta's public schools by analyzing data for highly unusual anomalies, applied the same methodology to 69,000 schools across the country – and found compelling evidence of widespread cheating.  I'm not at all surprised to learn that there are pockets of cheating, but I'm stunned at how widespread it appears to be – this means we reformers have to make this a TOP priority, or we risk undermining everything we're achieving (see further comments below):

Suspicious test scores in roughly 200 school districts resemble those that entangled Atlanta in the biggest cheating scandal in American history, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows.

The newspaper analyzed test results for 69,000 public schools and found high concentrations of suspect math or reading scores in school systems from coast to coast. The findings represent an unprecedented examination of the integrity of school testing.

The analysis doesn't prove cheating. But it reveals that test scores in hundreds of cities followed a pattern that, in Atlanta, indicated cheating in multiple schools.

A tainted and largely unpoliced universe of untrustworthy test results underlies bold changes in education policy, the findings show. The tougher teacher evaluations many states are rolling out, for instance, place more weight than ever on tests.

Perhaps more important, 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.

"These findings are concerning," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in an emailed statement after being briefed on the AJC's analysis.

He added: "States, districts, schools and testing companies should have sensible safeguards in place to ensure tests accurately reflect student learning."

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 10 billion.

In Houston, for instance, test results for entire grades of students jumped two, three or more times the amount expected in one year, the analysis shows. When children moved to a new grade the next year, their scores plummeted — a finding that suggests the gains were not due to learning.

Overall, 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.

For 33 of those districts, the odds were worse than one in a million.

A few of the districts already face accusations of cheating. But in most, no one has challenged the scores in a broad, public way.

The newspaper's analysis suggests that tens of thousands of children may have been harmed by inflated scores that could have precluded tutoring or more drastic administrative actions.

The analysis shows that in 2010 alone, the grade-wide reading scores of 24,618 children nationwide — enough to populate a midsized school district — swung so improbably that the odds of it happening by chance were less than one in 10,000.

This is what I wrote last July ( and 


Defenders of the status quo will surely try to use this scandal to try to roll back any type of accountability system, but (as always) they'll be wrong.  Of course adults who are lousy at their jobs will try to cheat if they worry about being exposed and possibly losing their jobs – we reformers need to be VERY aware of this.  But the answer to this is to make sure that cheating is difficult – and the consequences for doing so severe.  For example, I think every teacher who cheated should be fired immediately and charges should be brought against Beverly Hall…


…But schools (and school systems) cheating on tests isn't new and didn't originate with (or because of) NCLB.  Obviously, when accountability is introduced into any system, the incentive to cheat goes up – but the solution isn't to abandon accountability, but rather to take measures to combat cheating.


I don't think I've ever written these words before, but Diane Ravitch has it exactly right: "To say that tests create cheating is wrong.  What creates cheating is people who cheat. If we spent as much time teaching kids as showing them the answer, they might have learned to read."


OK, OK, pick yourself up off the floor – Ravitch didn't really say this about the Atlanta scandal: she said it about a NYC scandal in 1999 (, before she went off on a crazed personal vendetta, lost her marbles, and became a spokesperson for the unions.  While it's hard to believe now, she really used to be top notch.


And here's what RiShawn Biddle wrote last July (

what education traditionalists are doing is simply trying to let teachers and principals off the hook for actually doing their job: Ensuring that every child gets a high-quality education, is proficient in reading and math, and has the skills they need to succeed in traditional and technical colleges, and in the working world. Certainly, teaching is a difficult career, and becoming even more challenging; there are plenty of teachers who are learning that they lack the subject-matter knowledge, instructional competence, entrepreneurial drive, zeal for improving the lives of children and empathy for kids of all backgrounds needed to be high-quality instructors.  There are also principals who now realize that they cannot handle the complexities of leading schools in an age in which using data to support the work of good-to-great teachers, get rid of laggards, and revamp school activities, is more critical than ever. They should leave the profession. Supporting efforts to cheat kids out of accurate and honest assessment of their achievement — and denying them a high-quality instruction — is unacceptable and should not be used by anyone to justify their opposition to reform.

Meanwhile the Atlanta cheating scandal, massive as it is, pales in comparison to the pervasive practices in American public education that deny far too many children the high-quality education they deserve.


Cheating our children: Suspicious school test scores across the nation

By Heather VogellJohn Perry and Alan Judd and M.B. Pell

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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