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NCLB Outrages

Amid Testing Stress, Some Teachers Cheat

Ohanian Comment: Kudos to the reporter for linking cheating incidents to NCLB pressures. I wonder if any of us former teachers know how we would behave if we saw our life's work, our passion, our very ability to help children, swirling down the drain because of a high-stakes test.

And the awful irony is that the testing frenzy has created a new growth industry: entrepreneurs promising to find cheaters. You can read about the company finding "opportunity" in this tragedy:


Yesterday's cheaters hid in the back row and spied for answers over their classmates' shoulders.

Today's top cheaters include teachers who lead entire classes into dishonesty in a desperate bid to prop up test scores.

A school's money, reputation and even jobs stand at risk when students do poorly. The pressure nationwide has caused a growing number of teachers and administrators to try inflating standardized test scores.

The trend is not lost on Indiana education officials, who will pay a consultant up to $25,000 this year to determine whether more safeguards are needed against cheating on the annual state test.

Last week, a popular Muncie teacher was suspended for allegedly pointing out wrong answers to her third-grade students during the Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress-Plus. The case marked Indiana's third known incident in as many years.

Parents and education experts fear cheating on the statewide exam is more rampant than anyone knows and that, without a solid watchdog system, it is bound to worsen as federal pressure to improve scores piles on each year.

"Some people are bending the rules," said Thomas Haladyna, an Arizona State University education psychology professor who studies the manipulation of test score data. "I think it's mainly teachers, principals and superintendents, because of accountability and the need to show the public you're doing a good job."

A group of former testing experts has turned evidence of cheating nationwide into a business opportunity. Caveon, a new Utah consulting firm, operates as testing detectives for hire by schools and health care and other industries.

Indiana and at least six other states are expected to pay thousands of dollars to the testing security firm before the end of the school year. Delaware and South Carolina already are on board.

The group reviews state testing policies, analyzes student answer sheets for patterns of cheating and looks for test questions that have been leaked in advance.

"Simply announcing to everybody that you're doing something about security in itself has a beneficial effect," said John Fremer, Caveon's senior director of test security services. "It's like putting a sign in your yard that you have a security system. Someone who comes along is less likely to burglarize your house."

For now, whistle-blowing largely is up to teachers, school administrators and independent test scorers -- who are not trained to spot cheating, and who have few incentives to report it.

"We don't really hunt down cheaters," Haladyna said. "Schools don't want to self-report. They deal with the problem internally. We don't even hear half of the incidents that happen, but I know they happen."

Pressure grows

State tests are the centerpiece of a federal law that holds schools accountable for student progress. Schools that fail to show improvement risk losing federal money for programs to help the students most likely to fail.

The federal law, known as No Child Left Behind, has changed the landscape of education.

Schools invest millions in consultants to help them prepare children for the tests. Summer vacations are cut short to give students more review time, and topics from the test often are at the heart of school lessons.

Critics say the testing system stacks the deck against educators, who believe they have no power to combat student mobility, poverty, tight school budgets and high numbers of disabled or immigrant children -- all factors that can make it tough for students to succeed.

"I think we all agree that standards are a good thing, but I don't know any teachers who aren't really angry about this test," said Alisa Isaacs, an English teacher at Center Grove Middle School in Greenwood.

That's how some of them justify cheating, Haladyna said.

The most blatant form of cheating usually involves school officials who doctor answer sheets, Haladyna said. Even one or two changed answers per student can dramatically inflate a school's average score, he added.

Teachers or school leaders also have been known to extend testing time limits, read questions aloud when they're not supposed to and provide test answers in advance.

In Indiana:

Three Gary schools were stripped of their accreditation after complaints in 2002 that hundreds of 10th-graders received ISTEP-Plus answers in advance.

State officials refer to the scandal as organized test tampering, although they failed to pinpoint who was behind it.

Last year, Fort Wayne school officials lobbied to throw out the scores of a class of third-graders whose teacher gave away answers by emphasizing certain words on verbal test questions.

The teacher was not punished because "I'm not convinced she did it knowing that she was" cheating, said John Kline, who oversees testing for Fort Wayne schools.

In the past week, Muncie teacher Kathryn Dawson was suspended with pay because she and a student teacher tapped children on the shoulder or pointed at their tests to indicate a wrong answer or a skipped question, school officials said.

The scores of 20 third-graders at Longfellow Elementary School were thrown out, and Dawson's class will lose state money.

The unusually big leap in scores in Dawson's class -- the percentage of children who appeared to pass math, for example, was 80 percent this year, up from 47 percent last year -- triggered suspicion. So did a complaint.

Some parents insist Dawson had good intentions. Her work with school chili suppers, dances and other activities earned her a plaque from Longfellow's parent-teacher organization.

But even her supporters cringe at the broader lesson Dawson's students might have taken from the experience.

"The kids have been taught not to cheat, but then the teachers turn around, and they're doing it," said Tereasa Holland, of Muncie, whose son was in Dawson's class. "I'm concerned about this being done in other schools with other teachers in the past."

Dawson did not return telephone calls.

Few consequences

Punishing cheaters usually is up to school districts, which can fire or discipline them.

Muncie school officials haven't decided Dawson's professional fate, but her seven-year record entitles her to a hearing and legal help from the Indiana State Teachers Association, the state's largest teachers union.

States such as Nevada can revoke the licenses of teachers who are caught cheating, but Indiana licenses are in jeopardy only if teachers are convicted of a crime.

The state offers no guidance when it comes to disciplining cheaters, but that could change if more cases of cheating emerge in schools, said Rep. Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican who will head the House Education Committee.

Holland, the Muncie parent, hopes that bad publicity will stop the cheating. But education experts fear things will only get worse. Even one student who fails puts a school's federal money at risk.

"As the stakes get higher on achievement testing, we shouldn't be surprised that things like this happen," said Jonathan Plucker, director of Indiana University's Center for Evaluation and Education Policy. "People panic."

Test incidents

Examples of alleged cheating on state tests since 2000:
A Nevada legislative report found teachers provided testing materials to students nearly a dozen times.
State officials in Mississippi found more than two dozen cases of cheating, mostly involving school employees. The test scores of nine schools were thrown out as a result.
Officials in Boston cleared a principal of helping students to cheat on the Massachusetts test, despite accusations from students.
Officials in Columbus, Ohio, investigated charges of cheating at a school that was praised for progress on test scores. Some students said teachers gave them the correct answers.
The Austin, Texas, school district was charged with criminal tampering for exempting underachievers from state tests, which boosted the district's overall test scores.
An elementary school principal in Dallas quit less than two weeks after the local newspaper found overwhelming evidence of organized cheating on state tests.
Teachers and administrators from 30 schools in New York City were accused of encouraging their students to cheat on standardized tests.
Principals and teachers in suburban Potomac, Md., allegedly gave fifth-graders answers and extra time on their standardized tests.

Sources: List compiled by Caveon and the National Center for Policy Analysis The state Department of Education gets a handful of cheating reports a year, but Wes Bruce, head of testing for the department, said most of them are unfounded.


— Staci Hupp
Indianapolis Star


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