School test cheating seen to thrive under lax investigations

Alan Judd / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution /

ATLANTA — In the spring of 2008, students at a Mobile, Ala., middle school discovered something weird on their yearly achievement tests: someone, somehow, had changed their answers. But when their teacher alerted the principal, he suggested she proceed with caution.

“Sleep on it,” the principal said.

When the teacher reported the apparent cheating to Alabama’s state education department, it ordered a thorough investigation of Scarborough Middle School. But not too thorough. Computer analyses that might detect organized tampering, the state superintendent of education says, would have amounted to a “witch hunt.”

The Mobile episode, detailed in interviews and public records, illustrates the haphazard manner in which many states and school districts handle reports of cheating on high-stakes achievement tests, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has found. Officials often minimize such allegations, treating them as mere aberrations: one-time occurrences best dealt with in isolation.

This is the case in several cities the Journal-Constitution identified earlier this year as having, along with Atlanta, extreme concentrations of suspicious test scores: Mobile, Dallas, Houston, Detroit, Baltimore, St. Louis, and East St. Louis, Ill. The newspaper recently examined more than 130 cheating cases from those cities, a review that provides a ground-level view of cheating and its consequences.

In some cases, investigations uncovered wrongdoing and led to punishment for a handful of educators. In others, inquiries glossed over glaring irregularities. Nearly always, officials focused narrowly on a single classroom or, at most, a single school — the approach the Atlanta Public Schools used for years before a scandal over systemic cheating erupted three years ago.

The cases reviewed by the Journal-Constitution do not represent all the cheating allegations in the seven districts, only those for which local and state education agencies would release files. Nevertheless, they reveal broad suspicions, often confirmed, of cheating in many districts highlighted by the newspaper’s earlier analysis, which found nearly 200 districts with highly unlikely swings in test scores. They also depict a subculture of dishonesty in a noble profession: teachers who brazenly provide answers to their students, administrators who convene groups that erase and correct students’ responses, school district officials who look the other way when wrongdoing emerges.

‘Accepted practice’

In East St. Louis, cheating was “accepted practice” at Annette Officer Elementary, the school district said in a recent report. Test scores rocketed and plunged over several years, a telltale sign of tampering. But it wasn’t until this spring, after a teacher reported improprieties, that the district opened an inquiry.

The teacher said that before testing began, an administrator instructed her to tell students to mark lightly on their answer sheets. That way, the administrator said, erasures would not “look like someone else had made them.”

The cheating scheme was so elaborate, officials alleged, that an administrator devised a code to warn the school staff if outsiders showed up during testing. As a team of officials looking into testing violations approached the school last March, they heard the administrator broadcast the alert on the public address system: “Will Abraham Lincoln please come to the office?” The principal denied wrongdoing, but he and two instructional coaches quit, bringing the investigation to a close.

The district saw no need to check other East St. Louis schools for irregularities, Beth Shepperd, an assistant superintendent, said this month.

“This was public in our community,” Shepperd said. “If any teacher at another school felt there was a concern, that teacher had an opportunity to come forward.”

Fewer than a dozen teachers or administrators lost their jobs over cheating in the 130 cases the Journal-Constitution examined. Three of them, all from the same middle school in Houston, also faced criminal charges. The majority of cases, including those in which investigators said they found “severe” or “sloppy” or “unallowable” violations, ended with no more than a warning, if even that.

Investigating allegations of cheating remains a low priority in many states, despite high-profile scandals in Atlanta, Philadelphia, the District of Columbia and other school districts. Just 10 states budget for such inquiries, according to a recent survey of state education agencies by the Journal-Constitution. Those states set aside from $5,000 to $250,000 a year for investigations.

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