Teacher Cheating Scandal Highlights Testing, Professional Weaknesses

Published December 8, 2012

Indictments are mounting as federal prosecutors uncover more cases of fraud and conspiracy in a teacher-cheating ring spread across three southern states. Teachers allegedly paid impersonators to take certification tests in their place using fake identification at Praxis testing centers, then entered or remained in the classroom.

Fourteen people have been indicted as part of the teacher certification cheating conspiracy the U.S. Department of Justice says was led by Clarence Mumford Sr. of Tennessee.

The racket lasted 15 years in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee, DOJ officials said. Four other persons have pleaded guilty to related crimes, including identification and Social Security fraud.

“We’re always turning people away with suspicious IDs, but I can’t remember the last time [there was] a case of this scope,” said Education Testing Service spokesman Tom Ewing. ETS conducts the Praxis tests, which 37 states use to gate the teaching profession.

The case first came to light in 2009, when personnel noted an individual taking Praxis certification exams twice in one day at the same location. The ensuing investigation led test officials to Mumford. ETS then handed its findings to federal investigators.

Security arrangements for Praxis tests are similar to those for most tests, Ewing said: Test takers present a government-issued picture ID, must be preregistered, are watched by a proctor during the test, and computer programs review answers for anomalies.

‘Deeply Rooted Problem’
The Josephson Institute of Ethics has studied whether adults who practice dishonest, unethical behavior did so when younger.

“The behavior seems to continue,” said Rich Jarc, JIE’s executive director.

In the institute’s 2009 survey, educators ranked as less dishonest than salespeople and journalists, but 11 percent admitted they think occasional lying or cheating in order to succeed is “necessary.”

With six-hour days and summers off, teaching is a well-paid, attractive profession, and some unqualified people strive to attain and maintain credentials to remain in it, said Herbert Walberg, a Hoover Institution fellow.

“Cheating within schools is a deeply rooted problem,” Walberg said. “With No Child Left Behind state-level examinations, there’s cheating going on around—a lot of it. A lot of schools aren’t up to par and considered failing, and there’s more and more and more pressure on educators to do well.”

Low Bar
People who have a teaching degree usually have little problem passing the Praxis test, Ewing said.

“[Praxis I] is an easy test for anyone who has completed high school, but has nothing to do with college-level ability or scores,” said Sandra Stotsky, an education professor at the University of Arkansas who has studied teacher licensing. “The test is far too undemanding for a prospective teacher.… The fact that these people hired somebody to take an easy test of their skills suggests that these prospective teachers were probably so academically weak it is questionable whether they would have been suitable teachers.”

Prospective teachers can retake the Praxis if they do poorly, eliminating any valid reason for them to dislike the exams, Stotsky said.

Teachers as Role Models
Praxis tests subject knowledge, Ewing said, which is a “small part of what measures teacher effectiveness.” Other elements include effective communication, organizing one’s time, and modeling good character.

“One o f the most important things in being a teacher is being a role model,” Jarc noted. “If they’ve done things unethically or illegally, that doesn’t put them in a good place to be a role model or mentor for kids.”

“Teachers are called to be professionals, both in and out of the classroom,” said Alexandra Schroeck, spokeswoman for the Association of American Educators. AAE’s Code of Ethics states, “Cheating has absolutely no place in the classroom, as educators should be conscious that they are setting an example for their students.”

Security Struggles
Praxis cheating is not exclusive to or markedly prevalent in southern states, Ewing said, but a nationwide problem. “We’re constantly upgrading our security,” he said.

ETS now employs voice recognition software on some exams, but it relies heavily on personal observations at test sites.

Walberg recommends third-party testing for all standardized tests. This means an outside agency monitors student and teacher tests, or at the very least inspects schools’ testing processes.


Image of Clarence Mumford by the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office.