Yet another test-tampering scandal has erupted, this time involving teachers at Normandy Crossing Elementary School in suburban Houston, Texas.
When test results came back, many were amazed at astonishing improvement in state science test scores. The scores were so good, Galena Park Independent School District officials decided to launch an investigation.
As a result, Normandy Crossing’s principal, assistant principal, and three teachers resigned in late May.
Teachers ‘Tubed’ the Test
The Texas teachers reportedly put together a study guide to the exam after scrutinizing the science test.
According to district investigators, teachers “tubed” the test—squeezing the test booklet to see the questions inside without breaking the seal. After discovering the tampering, the district invalidated the students’ test scores.
The pressure to cheat can be high—and lucrative. The fifth grade math and science teachers at Normandy Crossing stood to receive a bonus of nearly $3,000 each for delivering higher test scores.
Cheating Reports on Rise
The Normandy Crossing offenders are not alone in succumbing to the temptation to cheat.
More and more states have identified such tampering, leading to investigations in Virginia, Nevada, Massachusetts, Indiana, and Georgia.
Georgia state officials recommended in August that 109 teachers, test coordinators and administrators—including several principals—face sanctions in light of evidence of suspected cheating at 58 Atlanta Public Schools.
Robert Schaeffer, public education director for FairTest, a nonprofit research group, says the apparent rise in cheating is the result of much greater pressure on teachers to produce higher scores.
“Teachers are feeling that their jobs and livelihood as well as their self-images are at stake because politicians have cheated parents and schools with the emphasis on these standardized test scores,” Schaeffer said. “It doesn’t mean that what they are doing is right, but they have been put under the gun and feel they have no way out.”
Schaeffer blames the political instinct to rely on standardized tests. “Politicians need to back off of their misuse of standardized tests and develop assessment systems that rate students, teachers, schools on the basis of different measures,” he said. “They need to rely on much on richer forms of assessment rather than the simple-minded multiple choice exams, which are easy to coach and easy to cheat on.”
“If we were assessing the teachers and schools on their real abilities the cheating wouldn’t occur,” Schaeffer said. “Students need better education and better assessments.”
Blaming No Child Left Behind
Inevitably, criticism of standardized testing turns to criticism of the 2002 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law.
Schaeffer’s group argues NCLB should be replaced with a model that uses multiple measures of achievement and inspectors to maintain the integrity of the assessment.
“There needs to be a move towards performance assessment so the real work that students do can show what they know and can demonstrate, instead of these external tests which are subject to manipulation,” Schaeffer said.
‘We Never Checked Before’
Ben Scafidi, director of the Center for an Educated Georgia, says he isn’t certain the recent five-month investigation focused on Atlanta’s public schools point to a sudden rise in cheating.
“We aren’t sure there has been an increase. We just never checked before,” he said. “Almost nobody checks to see if schools are cheating.”
Altlanta’s schools have been at the center of an investigation into allegations of widespread cheating. Scafidi says cheating and corruption was made easier by the lack of meaningful oversight—which he says is an ongoing problem.
“The state of Georgia should have done more,” Scafidi said. “They required only the school districts with the most egregious amounts of cheating to conduct their own investigations. So far, Atlanta City Schools and Dougherty County have had investigations that were largely whitewashes. It seems that the state did not have the money to conduct their own investigations.”
In order to discourage cheating, Scafidi said, the state should watch test-taking more closely. This year, state monitors were present in some schools with allegedly high rates of cheating. Confirming investigators’ suspicions, test scores fell dramatically at those schools compared with the previous year when nobody was watching.
For example, at Atlanta City’s White Elementary, 88 percent of third graders supposedly passed the state math exam in 2009. This year, with state monitors in place, only 27 percent of third graders at that school passed the math exam.
Calls for More Analysis
Georgia also needs to do more intensive analyses of tests to find out whether schools are cheating in other ways, Scafidi says.
“Right now, they are only catching schools who are erasing wrong answers and replacing them with correct ones,” he explained. “There are other ways to cheat.”
“All of that said, I am not sure there is a state that is doing as much as Georgia to identify cheating. When schools are caught cheating, the administration should be fired—the school and district administration,” Scafidi said.
So far, Georgia officials decline to say whether anyone will be terminated or prosecuted. The investigations are ongoing.
“When the adults cheat and give students higher test scores than they deserved, the students are cheated,” Scafidi explained. “They do not receive tutoring they would have otherwise received. The parents get a false signal about how much their children are learning.”
“It is shameful that the public school establishment is cheating to make themselves look better,” he said.
Sarah McIntosh ([email protected]) teaches constitutional law and American politics at Wichita State University in Kansas.
FairTest’s recommendations for reforming No Child Left Behind: http://www.fairtest.org/files/FEAreauthgoalssummary4-10.pdf