By Steve Gunn
COLUMBUS, Ohio – Across the nation, lawmakers and school boards are demanding better results from public education.
They want to set the bar higher for American students by adopting a tough new set of national standards and demanding passing grades and solid attendance. They want to set the bar higher for teachers and administrators by demanding more accountability for student learning.
They’ve tried to put some teeth in these new policies by adopting penalties for those who do not meet standards. Failing teachers can now lose tenure protection in many states. Schools and programs that don’t meet benchmarks can lose government funding or risk state takeovers.
All of this is necessary to get America’s education system back on the track of excellence.
The problem is that lawmakers and policymakers have limited reach. They can establish laws and standards, but it’s up to local educators to implement them, and often measure their own degree of success in meeting them.
But sometimes those educators cheat to get themselves or their schools off the hook, or to maintain a steady flow of state dollars. It’s a breach of faith on the part of school employees that cannot be tolerated, and must be met with harsh and decisive disciplinary action.
Cheating accusations spreading across Ohio
The latest controversy comes from several school districts in Ohio, where officials have been accused of “scrubbing” student academic scores and attendance records to avoid penalties.
In the Columbus school district, officials are accused of withdrawing many sub-par students that are still enrolled, then re-enrolling them on the district roster. That allows them to “break a student’s streak of continuous enrollment,” according a story published by Cincinnati.com.
Why would they do this? Only the test-scores of students who’ve been enrolled without interruption are counted in the school’s overall state testing data.
Tina Abdella, former internal auditor for the Columbus district, told the media that she tried to investigate anonymous tips about scrubbed attendance records, but was diverted by the superintendent and later fired by the school board.
In the Lockland, Ohio school district, officials have been accused of falsely eliminating 36 low-scoring students from its rolls in an effort to improve its state report card. An email from Superintendent Donna Hubbard appears to suggest that school officials actively “scrubbed” state testing data.
“Have we done everything we can do on the scrubbing?” according to an email, attributed to Hubbard, which was recently published by the Cincinnati Enquirer. “We are just 2.3 P.I. index points away from receiving an effective report card for the district … If you can contact someone to find out how to recode these students so that their scores won’t count against us, we may be able to pull this off.”
Reports of similar activities have been reported in the Toledo school district.
Ohio State Auditor Dave Yost is investigating the allegations in Columbus, Lockland and Toledo, and has expanded the probe to include all school districts in the state. He believes “it’s likely” more school districts have been cheating in similar ways.
This story could turn much uglier very soon.
Scandals here, there and everywhere
The national focus on school employees cheating to avoid increased accountability goes back to last year’s Atlanta scandal.
A total of 110 teachers in 44 Atlanta schools were accused of helping students cheat on standardized tests. All have been on administrative leave with pay, costing the district about $1 million a month in compensation for teachers who aren’t teaching.
As far as we can tell, 11 of the teachers have been targeted for termination, one was actually fired and four more resigned. The district superintendent recently raised eyebrows by calling back 12 of the accused teachers to work, based on “insufficient evidence” against them.
In El Paso, Texas, Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia was fired earlier this year, and pleaded guilty to several counts of criminal charges, for “scheming with six district employees to game the federal accountability system by forcing some students to drop out of school, keeping other students from enrolling, stripping some foreign students of their credits and sending false data back to state and federal education agencies,” according to the El Paso Times.
The idea was to artificially inflate the district’s standardized test scores — and the flow of government money that’s tied to those results, according to media reports. Four former building principals from the district have since complained they were fired after refusing orders to participate in the cheating.
In Oklahoma City, a teacher at a district high school recently told EAGnews.org that he and others were instructed by a principal to falsify enrollment and attendance records so they appeared to satisfy federal grant requirements.
Ironically, the Oklahoma City district had already been investigating similar accusations at a different high school.
A nationwide epidemic?
To top it all off, reporters from the Atlanta Journal Constitution, which broke the cheating scandal in that city, have indicated that suspicious test scores from roughly 200 school districts across the nation resembled the false scores recorded in Atlanta.
As the newspaper noted, the analysis of scores from other districts is not direct evidence of cheating. “But it reveals that test scores in hundreds of cities followed a pattern that, in Atlanta, indicated cheating in multiple schools,” the Journal Constitution wrote.
In nine of those districts, scores varied so unpredictably that the odds of the shifts occurring without some form of intervention (or cheating) were worse than one in 10 billion, according to the Journal Constitution.
In 196 of the nation’s 3,125 largest school districts, there were enough suspect tests to make the odds of the scores happening by chance more than one in 1,000, the newspaper said.
“In Houston, for instance, test results for entire grades of students jumped two, three or more times the amount expected in one year,” the newspaper reported. “When children moved to a new grade the next year, their scores plummeted – a finding that suggested the gains were not due to learning.”
At the Patrick Henry Downtown Academy in St. Louis, about 42 percent of fourth-graders passed the state math test in 2010. The following year, as state investigators prowled the halls looking into allegations of cheating, only four percent of the same students passed the state math test.
As the Journal Constitution put it, “Experts say student learning doesn’t typically jump backwards.”
Cheating can never be excused
In several districts where cheating scandals have erupted, teachers, administrators and their apologists have suggested that higher student achievement standards and the focus on high-stakes standardized testing has driven otherwise honest school employees to cheating.
Damany Lewis, the first teacher fired as part of the Atlanta scandal, said the following to the special commission that determined his fate:
“We were told failure was not an option. Teaching and learning was the primary focus of the teachers. Results were the primary focus of this district and our administration.”
So the goal should have been to prepare the students to provide the best test results possible, instead of cheating on test scores to make the results look better than they were. Cheating is never an excuse.
What sort of message does this send to students? Instead of setting an example of good citizenship by living under existing rules while trying to change them, teachers simply cheated to get around the rules.
Some students in Atlanta and other districts were probably aware of this wink-and-nod system before it was exposed, and certainly knew about it afterward. Too many of them likely came away with the idea that cheating is okay in an unfair world, particularly since teachers do it.
The Journal-Constitution also noted that test scores help schools identify problem areas for individual students. “Falsified test results deny struggling students access to extra help to which they are entitled,” the newspaper said.
The crucial goal of increased accountability in education is to find out if schools are getting the job done for their students, and demanding improvements if they are not. We owe that much to the taxpayers who fund the schools and the students who are depending on a quality education to prepare for the life ahead of them.
Those who lie and cheat to save their own skins are making a mockery of school reform efforts. A student with an artificially enlarged test score is not being properly served.
The only people served are the teachers and administrators who have something to gain by turning in false data. They should be tossed out on their butts as an example to others who may be tempted to doctor the documents just a bit.