Cheating to the Test

Published March 1, 2000

Last June, New York City’s Special Commissioner of Investigations, Edward F. Stancik, issued a report titled “How to Succeed Without Really Trying.” The report revealed how 61 students from the Eastern District Senior Academy in Brooklyn had been awarded high school diplomas after receiving credits for running errands for teachers and taking courses like bicycle repair and Whiffleball theory.

A follow-up report by Stancik was issued last December and describes what is perhaps the most extensive cheating scandal in the history of the United States: cheating by teachers, not students. It is titled “Cheating the Children: Educator Misconduct on Standardized Tests.”

Under pressure to improve student performance on standardized reading and mathematics tests, some educators resorted to a strategy far worse than “teaching to the test”: helping students cheat on the tests. Some teachers and principals simply changed the answers themselves when students had completed the tests; others told students to erase wrong answers and mark the correct ones; and some had students write their answers on scratch paper, then told them the right answers before the students completed the actual test paper.

Although Stancik cited 32 schools where cheating occurred and accused some 47 teachers, principals, and teaching staff of being involved in the deception, he said that “by no means do I believe we’ve caught all the cheaters.”

Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew said that all 52 of the accused educators had been removed from their jobs, an action Stancik said had not been taken when Crew’s top investigator, Marlene Malamy, had discovered evidence of cheating on tests. According to Stancik, Malamy ignored suspicious activities and “punished” offenders by placing a letter in their personnel files.

“The Board of Education has not done an effective job in punishing them,” Stancik told The New York Post, which had noted as early as July 1998 that there was reason to believe the improvement in test scores “was largely due to pure, old-fashioned cheating.” The newspaper reported that students in schools in the Bronx were being coached before taking the tests, and the Board of Education admitted that students who were likely to score poorly were excused from taking the tests.

Although editors at the New York Times found the evidence of cheating “appalling,” their solution was to call for more resources for students and teachers, blaming the cheating abuses on “schools that have essentially given up on education.” But public schools apologist Alfie Kohn held the tests themselves responsible not only for the cheating but also for making schools worse. The “heavy-handed demands for ‘tougher standards’ . . . invite cheating” and deprive children of “opportunities for meaningful learning,” he opined.

“The reality is that many second-rate schools in the inner city are becoming third-rate as students are drilled day after day to pass the tests,” said Kohn. “Every hour spent on such exam preparation is an hour not spent helping students to become critical, creative, curious learners.”