Allegations of Standardized Test Cheating Spread

Published April 12, 2010

Nearly 200 schools in Georgia have been implicated in what could be the largest standardized testing scandal in American history.

Georgia’s Office of Student Achievement in February ordered school districts across the state to investigate evidence of tampering on the state’s standardized achievement test, the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test (CRCT). The majority of suspect tests were allegedly altered in Atlanta public schools.

Officials say red flags were raised after an unusual number of erasures changed answers from wrong to right on the standardized test’s answer sheets. Although the investigations are ongoing, state officials suspect a pattern of cheating by teachers or administrators.

‘Amount of Cheating Is Shocking’

School reformers lauded the state’s quick response.

“The amount of cheating is shocking,” said Ben Scafidi, director of the Center for an Educated Georgia, an education research group based outside of Atlanta. He praised Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) and the Office of Student Achievement’s aggressiveness.

“They have shown real courage,” Scarfidi said. “Every state should do this type of erasure analysis.”
“The sad part of all this is that some students were denied extra tutoring or other remedial services because their test scores were inflated to make the adults look good,” said Scafidi.

Critics Scrutinize Standards

Although Scafidi praised the state’s quick response, he questioned the investigation’s methodology as not aggressive enough.

“The standard the state used to determine cheating, a classroom average of more than three standard deviations above the mean of erased answers that went from wrong to right, is timid,” Scafidi said.

“The probability that one student has that many erased answers that changed a wrong answer to a correct one is miniscule,” Scafidi explained. “The likelihood that an entire class of students averaged that many erased answers from wrong to right is dramatically less than your chances of winning the lottery or being hit by lightning.
“I do not believe that one out of every 20 teachers at a school are cheating without any coordination from above,” Scafidi added.

Local Investigations Questioned

The investigations are being conducted by the individual school districts, however, not the state. The OSA released a general outline for investigations to local school superintendents, and the Department of Education has pledged to work on implementing a monitoring plan.

But Scafidi notes there is little incentive for school districts to probe deeply.

“School systems with incredible amounts of cheating, where more than 6 percent of classrooms have evidence of cheating, are required to conduct their own investigation. Virtually all others are not even asking the state [to identify] the classrooms with evidence of cheating,” Scafidi said. “I find it amazing that a school superintendent would not investigate instances of cheating in their schools.

“Just like Watergate, the biggest scandal will be in the cover-up,” he added.

Testing Integrity at Risk

Kelly McCutchen, president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, says standards-based accountability and the No Child Left Behind law have put more emphasis on testing, but high-stakes testing is not new, he notes.

“Tests like the SAT and ACT are just as or more important to an individual’s future as the current criterion-referenced tests, but we have not had broad-spread cheating problems with these tests,” McCutchen said. “The blame appears to fall on the adults administering the tests rather than the students.

“Although the initial evidence appears very strong, it would be unfair to the students, administrators, and schools to judge them before the investigation is complete,” he added. “If cheating did occur, these administrators should be severely punished. Not only does cheating damage the integrity of the testing system, but it also diminishes the accomplishments of those who played by the rules.”

Cheating Allegations Spread

In Texas, Houston city school officials in March tightened monitoring of fourth graders taking the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills Test after teachers at an elementary school revealed they had been given the writing topic in advance of the test. The students were given a new writing topic.

Both Texas and South Carolina have been auditing test procedures and providing guidelines for years. South Carolina started doing so even before No Child Left Behind was implemented.

National Implications

Critics of standardized testing say the Obama administration’s proposal to make state education funding contingent upon adopting national curriculum standards could breed more cheating scandals.

“National standards are bad policy for so many reasons,” said Andrew Coulson, director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute. 

“First, any set of standards and tests tied to age-based school grades does a disservice both to kids who are ahead of their age-mates and to those who are behind them. Kids are different,” Coulson explained. “Expecting them to all march through the curriculum in lockstep is not just inefficient, it’s cruel.”

“Second, the public officials who control the assessments have a powerful incentive to tweak the results for their own benefit, as the recent scandal revealed, the tests become a tool for protecting officials’ careers rather than teaching kids,” said Coulson.
Neal McCluskey, Coulson’s associate at Cato, says federal mandates tempt local school officials to game the system.

“It seems that the impetus for cheating is primarily to do well on state and federally mandated tests and stay out of trouble,” he said. “But cheating will be with us any time there are any consequences attached to any test. ‘Eyes on your own work’ is a phrase that will never go away.”

Sarah McIntosh ([email protected]) teaches constitutional law and American politics at Wichita State University in Kansas.