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America’s Most Outrageous Teacher Cheating Scandals

Many states still fail to follow up on evidence of teacher cheating. Here’s our rundown of the long history of such cheating.

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(Rui Vieira/PA Wire, AP Images)

Update: This story has been updated to reflect recent developments in the Atlanta cheating scandal. It has also been corrected.

Scandals involving cheating by teachers and schools to pump up ever-more-important student test scores swept the country in 2011, with states failing to implement simple and effective checks. But they've also been happening for years, and oversight is only beginning to catch up.

Here's an overview of some of the most shocking instances of teacher cheating, plus a few episodes that may have been overblown.

The 'Lake Wobegon' Effect (1987-89)

One of the earliest investigations of teacher cheating was spearheaded by John Jacob Cannell, a family physician from West Virginia who was shocked to hear that his poverty-stricken home state, with high rates of illiteracy, was performing above the national average on standardized tests. Cannell latched on to the issue and discovered that students in 48 states were supposedly performing above the national average—in part because they were being judged using out-of-date comparisons.

This phenomenon was christened the "Lake Wobegon Effect," after Garrison Keillor's legendary town where "every child is above average." Cannell's reports argued that score inflation resulted from infrequent test updates and too much "teaching to the test," as well as outright teacher cheating. While his findings were hotly debated, a Department of Education-sponsored study confirmed most of them.

Columbus, Ohio: After President Clinton Lauds School, Students Claim Cheating (2000)

Just weeks after President Clinton visited a Columbus school to laud its astronomical gains on test scores and argue that Clinton-Gore strategies were working, the school was enveloped in a cheating scandal. Three students told a teacher that they had received assistance on the previous year's exam. District investigators found no evidence to support the claims, but some parents found the accusation credible, and the veteran teacher who passed along the students' claims said she had been forced to go on disability leave after retaliations from the principal.

New York City: Early Cheating Scandal May Have Been Overblown (1999-2001)

Aggressive schools investigator Edward Stancik uncovered a wide range of cheating in New York City schools, including a seventh-grade teacher who had placed the answers to a test by a pencil sharpener, encouraged his students to sharpen their pencils, and left the room. But Stancik's most explosive findings, which implicated 32 schools and 52 educators, did not hold up to scrutiny. A New York Times investigation into his methods found that some of his accusations seemed dubious and that innocent teachers may have suffered as a result.

Chicago: 'Freakonomics' Author Catches Cheating Teachers (2002)

"Freakonomics" author Steven Levitt and fellow economist Brian Jacob developed a method to screen tests for teacher cheating by looking for identical strings of answers. Their conclusions, based on Chicago public-school tests from 1993 to 2000: Cheating on standardized tests occurred in at least 4 percent to 5 percent of classrooms every year; teachers in low-performing classrooms were likelier to cheat; and a "pronounced spike" in cheating occurred when Chicago introduced high-stakes testing in 1996. As a result of their report, Arne Duncan, then CEO of Chicago Public Schools and now U.S. Secretary of Education, asked the economists to put their algorithm to work catching cheaters in action. The experiment worked: When students of teachers suspected of cheating took the tests again, their scores dropped.

Birmingham, Ala.: School Targeted Students to Withdraw Before Tests (2004)

When the director of a GED program in Birmingham noticed in 2001 that many students were showing up at his office weeks after they had "withdrawn" from a local high school because of "lack of interest," he decided to investigate. With the help of a school board member, he found that more than 500 students—about 5 percent of the high school student body—had been asked to leave their schools, the New York Times reported in 2004. These forced withdrawals happened before students were to take an important standardized test but after the school was evaluated for the funding it would receive based on enrollment. The school district denied that the withdrawals had anything to do with getting rid of students who might have dragged down the school's test scores.

Texas: 700 Schools Flagged for Potential Cheating; State 'Investigated' With Survey (2004-07)

When the Dallas Morning News analyzed test results across Texas, it found hundreds of schools with test scores that had jumped and dropped in suspicious ways. The newspaper identified low-income schools with students at one grade level who struggled with basic skills—and students in the next grade who received nearly perfect scores or outperformed the state's most elite districts.

One elementary school's students scored so well that Oprah Winfrey featured it on a special about schools that "defy the odds." But a teacher said her high-scoring students could barely write their own names, and when the same students went on to middle school, their scores plummeted. The state ultimately decided to investigate at least 700 schools. But for more than 600, the "investigation" consisted of simply asking schools to fill out a survey about their testing procedures. Taking many schools at their word, the state declared that the vast majority were innocent despite further evidence that some schools cleared of wrongdoing had actually cheated.

Los Angeles: Charter Founder Orchestrated Cheating at Six Schools (2011)

The director of a group of six charter schools in Los Angeles ordered his principals to break the seals on state tests and help students prepare for the exams with actual test questions. When teachers reported the order, the school's governing board demoted the director but did not fire him, noting he had "expressed very, very deep regret." When the Los Angeles Board of Education voted to shut down the charter schools completely, parents, students and teachers made passionate arguments for keeping the schools open under different leadership and eventually succeeded.

Atlanta: Teachers Changed Answers in a District 'Run Like the Mob' (2011)

Teachers in Atlanta were so used to changing students' answers on standardized tests that they gathered for "erasure" parties and prepared answer keys on plastic transparencies to make the cheating easier. One teacher told investigators that she feared retaliation if she didn't participate, saying the district was "run like the mob." At least 178 teachers and principals — including ex-schools chief Beverly L. Hall — have been implicated in the scandal, which was first brought to light by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Hall was indicted March 29, 2013, on conspiracy and related charges. 

Washington, D.C.: Investigation Ongoing at 'Blue Ribbon' School With Suspicious Erasures (2011)

There's still no conclusive evidence of cheating at a Washington, D.C., school that gained federal accolades—and monetary bonuses—for its high performance on tests. But a USA Today investigation found that student test sheets had unusually high numbers of wrong answers that had been erased and replaced with right ones. Testing experts said the odds that these erasures occurred purely by chance were smaller than the odds of winning the Powerball grand prize in the lottery. (District officials say teachers trained students in testing techniques that may have led to more erasures.) The school's former "poster boy" principal recently resigned from his position as a superintendent. Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of D.C. schools who touted the school's success, has resisted answering questions.

Correction: April 4, 2013: A previous version of this post incorrectly suggested that in Birmingham, more than 500 students had “withdrawn” because of “lack of interest” from a single local high school, rather than from high schools across the district.

“Just weeks after President Clinton visited a Columbus school to laud its astronomical gains on test scores and argue that Clinton-Gore strategies were working, the school was enveloped in a cheating scandal.”  Hey, even Clinton gets an answer right once in a while…

Aw, c’mon, that’s a really hard one to not crack on.

Anyway, the questions I have relate less to the history and more to the effect.  Are the cheating kids cheating themselves?  That is, for the kids who aren’t cheating, is there a difference in performance, or is this all just useless regulation?  I’d guess the latter, but I’d be willing to rethink my position if those kids who abide by the system perform better in the workplace or abuse their spouses less or something.

Jeffrey Meitrodt

Sep. 19, 2011, 3:02 p.m.

In 1997, the Times-Picayune in New Orleans published a six-month investigation that revealed a pattern of statistically improbable and - in many cases impossible—test-score gains in the city’s large public school district. At one troubled school a principal instructed his teachers to commit a firing offense by reading portions of a standardized test to students “so they can respond positively” according to a memo obtained by the newspaper. At another school, the principal destroyed tests by low-performing students in order to boost the school’s overall scores. Eight days after the newspaper published the investigation, the school board demanded the superintendent’s resignation.
Here’s a link to the series titled “Too Good to be True”:
http://www.nola.com/speced/toogood/index.html

http://www.nola.com/speced/toogood/index.html

Peter Tatiner

Sep. 19, 2011, 3:38 p.m.

A real big deal, is it, teacher cheating?  By all means, man the barricades, reenforce the breastworks.  Hang a lamp in the North steeple. The cheating teachers are coming; the cheating teachers are coming.

As I wrote last week, teachers will be the party that will be punished, not those administrators who openly encouraged cheating.  I gave thousands of these tests as a high school teacher in California.  I know for a fact that after we delivered the tests to the designated ‘testing central’ on our campus, tests, answer sheets were counted and the boxes sealed.  Even the scrap paper for Math was collected.  Then the tests were taken by district employee, at the principal level or above, to Sacramento for ‘grading.’  Results were returned to us about six weeks later.

The problem is the state and Federal governments, all political parties, as basing way too much of their funding formulas on student test scores.  The district in which I grew up was upset that their average score for 29 schools was ONLY 719, while the district I taught in has problems getting kids to score 500-600.

After telling the country that would be changed, or at least examined, the current administration has opted for the same old thing.  As The Who sings, “...have you met the new boss, same as the old boss…”

Cheating is not surprising given the high stakes and some of the nonsensically weird testing requirements.  Special education students take the same tests as other kids.  Naturally because these kids with special needs tend to bring the class test average results down there is a temptation to cheat on the part of teachers.  This is but one example of the impossible testing regimes that schools frequently have to operate under.  I am sure that there are more.  I have no problem with testing but lumping apples and oranges into the same testing regime and expecting ‘success’ is unrealistic.

Jeffrey, thanks for the links to the Times-Picayune stories. Definitely an example that fits into the larger pattern.

And Peter, the point of this story was not to go OMG LOOK AT THE CHEATING TEACHERS, but to put this summer’s cheating scandals in context, look at the way that similar scandals have emerged over the past twenty years—and see what the final results of the scandals were.

Ummm…..  First, the status of public school teachers (as well as pay) is degraded.  This drives out true professionals who have the capacity to go elsewhere.  Next,  you “evaluate” people based on the test scores.  So, what do you expect?

When teachers’ jobs depend on their students’ test scores, cheating is, if not inevitable, at least strongly encouraged. And even in middle class school districts, home owners, hence local gov’t, will often turn a blind eye to it because low scores depress real estate values.

Shame on Salon for the sensationalized caption of this piece. The teachers are not the instigators of these test-cheating scandals!  They , may be guilty of not standing up to the “boss” but in these days of the world-of-work-gone-to-Hell, behind most cases of “teacher cheating” there is a principal or other administrator who has put pressure on them to “augment” scores so the school doesn’t get punished by reduced funding, making improvement impossible. This is the fault of the creators of the “No Child Left Behind” law.

Jackie,

Hopefully, the articles highlighted in this story capture some of the complexity of what we’re referring to in shorthand as “teacher cheating.” Maybe “school cheating” or “systemic cheating” would be better terms, since most of the scandals here weren’t based on a single teacher fudging his or her stats, but on a more systemic pattern of cheating at a school.  (I’m not sure if “systemic cheating” would have made sense in a headline; maybe “school cheating” would have.)

It’s also important to note that high-stakes testing, particularly at the state level, pre-dates George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001. So blaming the effects of the test-based accountability movement on Bush or NCLB isn’t really accurate. As you can see from the dates on these cheating scandals, the school cheating scandal definitely predates NCLB—but it’s clearly been tied to the rise of high-stakes testing, for obvious reasons, as some of you other commenters point out.

I followed the link regarding the Columbus, Ohio school “cheating”...and found this:  “despite three boys’ insistence that an unidentified teacher’s aide had guided them to some right answers.”

Last I knew, teacher’s aides in Ohio were typically unpaid volunteers - that is, somebody’s “mom”.

Thinking whether or not that teacher’s aide had any professional relationship with the school and whether or not he or she was acting at the behest of the teacher and/or school should have been investigated and included in the story…

Otherwise, I personally would have tossed that part of the story like a teacher crossing out a paragraph with that big red penciled in “Filler? Designed to increase word count?” on a 1,000 word essay.

One of the characters in Director Barry Levinson’s hit movie “Diner” was a guy named Boogie Wineglass (played by Mickey Rourke in the movie).  Boogie went on to become rich in the clothing business.  One of Boogie’s juvenile scams was selling blank report cards to his fellow high school students so that students could inflate their grades.  What’s the real difference between teacher cheating to inflate test scores and selling blank report cards?

Michelle Rhee cares nothing about putting students first.  She puts Michelle Rhee first.  If that were not true, she would have gone to the teachers who had the incredible test score increases and asked them, “What exactly did you do differently this year from last in order to bring about this great improvement?  We want to know so that we can do that in all classrooms so that ALL students can benefit from your improved methodology.”
She didn’t do that because she knew that those gains were suspicious.
Right now, she heads the organization called Students First which is subsidized by anti-union billionaires.  Her main job is to lie about how tenure means you have a guaranteed job for life (not true) and how unions protect incompetent teachers.  In fact, it was she who protected the incompetent DC teachers who cheated by failing to follow up and investigate those suspicious test scores.
The reason she has to continue as the head of Students First is that right now she is toxic and could not get a job in a public school system for love or money.  Most school superintendents know that her “gains” were falsified and they don’t want any scandals in their systems.

While I agree that the administrations must be held accountable (but won’t, because they have the power to sacrifice the teachers as scapegoats), those defending them are basically accepting “Befehl ist Befehl” (“I vas just followink orders,” in movie-speak).

If I had children, that’s certainly not the sort of person I’d want them learning from, so please be a little wary of standing up for them.

Great line up of teacher, school, districts cheating. You should add the Park City High School principle to the list. Sadly that story never got covered because the teacher was bullied into staying quite.

Goes straight back to the Unions.  And no ethics or morals in the teachers community.. Just greed .
I lost all respect for teachers back in 1979,
Visited 5th grade class,  the room was bare, teachers desk was bare, end of October, I asked where are the pictures,math related aids etc.
Her answer, Oh I;m not staying , I’m waiting my job approval to work for the dept of Defense.
Another Teacher,Hypochondriac, could not teach for relating ALL OF HER PHYsICAL SHORTCOMINGS<  Everyday, and graphic descriptions, and drugs.
And HOw she would let her students know on a scale of 1 to 10 how she felt that day and how much they were not to bother her.
And then the banana on a stick,  I showed for field day, no parents present, I walked over to the principle , and asked why parents were not notified as to field event day.
He r answer. ‘I really did not wan t the parents here,  they are a bad influence on the kids, and we the teachers lose psycological control over the kids, When the parents are here their performance rating bottoms out.
30 years dealing with the gooberment education system, . Nothing has changed,just more BS, stupid teachers , stupid kids, and the unions are the mobsters,  PUshing a social fascist agenda.

Gordon Parks Academy   ALL !!! ethnic. Obamao singled out gave 900,000$ , not another school in the city of wichita, ks,  got that much taxpayer money. A freebie, And within one year, their Tests scores sky rocketed.
And now not a peep. NOt a word, And the mone y is GONE, GONE, GONE!
And the first thing out of everyones mouth about it ,
It had the smell of dishonesty so reeking , that the stench was unbearable, but no one not the media or anyone said or has said another word.
They have put a clamp on it so tight, I am beginning to wonder if it is even still a school.

Take the policy of urging students in St. Petersburg, Fl to take advanced placement courses. The superentendent stated it did not matter if they passed. Of course a school’s rating is baised on how many students are TAKING advanced placement courses not how many PASS!!!! This obvious policy not only cheats those who would benefit from the courses but also cheats those poor students out of any posible benefit because they are detined to fail.

If texasdraw encountered such terrible teachers, that is not the union’s fault because unions do not hire or fire teachers.  That one who did nothing waiting for her federal job to come through had obviously not been there long enough to get into trouble nor to have the union come to her aid.  If those problem teachers are not removed, it is the fault of the school management which did not remove them.
Where I teach, the union shares in the decisions to remove non-performing teachers.  Five hundred have gone through the entire process and been removed with the concurrence of the union and hundreds more have made the decision to resign rather than to go through the process.

@Jane Stern:  I tend to take someone who relates an anecdotal incident that presumably occurred over 30 years ago - that is, long enough ago that personnel movements and retirements ensure that it cannot be refuted or substantiated - with a grain of salt about the size of…Texas.

Graydon DeCamp

Sep. 21, 2011, 7:20 a.m.

Now that widespread cheating by teachers and schools has been firmly established, perhaps ProPublica can finish the job. Not one of these stories says a word about any real consequences for having been caught cheating - except possibly some temporary embarrassment and fiddling around the edges. It’s time to look into that and keep the pressure on everyone—teachers, administrators, unions. This isn’t the weather, folks. This is public education at work, and we CAN do something about it. The failure of public education is the root cause of much of what ails America today. We MUST correct it by requiring accountability at every level.

Edward Hugglebottom

Sep. 21, 2011, 8:02 a.m.

That’s because other than scandal, there aren’t any real consequences.

@Graydon DeCamp:  “Widespread cheating”?????

lollll…how many schools did ProPublica mention?  I’ll seriously exaggerate (‘cuz I like using the word “dozen”) and say they mentioned two dozen instances at two dozen schools.

You know how many schools were in operation in the United States in the 2009-10 school year?  93,295!!!

So if I say that two dozen instance of cheating have been recorded, then that is a percentage of 0.02572% !!!  (Wish that were my tax rate.)

If that is “widespread”, then I’m no longer frightened of “epidemics”.

Ooops…I accidentally used the total count of schools for the 2004-2005 school year.  In the 2009-10 school year, the total number of schools appears to have passed 98,000…

I.e., the percentage of reported (but not necessarily documented) cheating is even smaller than I calculated above.

The data on the number of schools can be found at:

nces.ed.gov/pubs2011/pesschools09/tables/table_01.asp

if somebody wants to do the math themselves.

Actually, Steve, I agree in principle, that’s pretty close to the definition of epidemic.  As Wikipedia (for what it’s worth) puts it, “...new cases of a certain disease, in a given human population, and during a given period, substantially exceed what is expected based on recent experience,” which is pretty much what they finally revealed at the end of the swine flu scare.  (And a pandemic is where you have an epidemic of the disease on at least two continents, according to the WHO at the time.)

Back on topic, I don’t know how widespread this really is, but my experience with software says that the people you hear problems from represent about a tenth of the people seeing the problem, and they represent about a tenth of the engaged population.  Now, there’s no reason to think it would necessarily hold here, but it’s the only metric I have handy.  Assuming it’s close enough, two thousand schools (those reported among those caught, those caught among those engaged) would be fairly significant.

(And the Texas story above refers to seven HUNDRED schools were under investigation, which itself is almost a full percent, and could again be proverbial iceberg tip.)

What do they expect when they give money to the schools with the highest scores and let the ones with the lowest scores drop by the wayside.  It seems to me that they should be throwing more money at the poorer rated schools to help them do better with testing than to keep throwing money at the higher testing schools, who obviously don’t need it.  It’s all because of the money!!  If they gave money equally to ALL schools, perhaps the testing would be more honest.  Actually, I think “teaching to the test” is a ridiculous form of educating students….children get bored when they aren’t motivated to learn new things in interesting ways.  Just “rote” teaching so they can pass a test is BORING!!!  No wonder they don’t do well.

James B Storer

Sep. 21, 2011, 2 p.m.

Many years ago music was recorded on grooves spiraled onto rigid discs.  The sound was recovered through an arm with a simple needle inserted at the end.  The needle tracked the grooves and the vibrations reproduced the music.  Invariably an imperfection would allow the needle to jump back with each revolution and replay the previous groove, over and over.
  In this subject of bashing public schools, selling charter school, intimating teachers, and installing these totally counterproductive “standardized” testing and special programs such “advanced placement” my opinion has not changed over the last few years.  The whole mess is intertwined in a decades old propaganda-saddled agenda whose purpose is to destroy public education in the United States and replace it with corporate owned and controlled schools.  The purpose is to advance a fascist government dividing the citizenry into uneducated rote “slaves,” obedient management lackeys, and all under the control of an elite fascist global corporate dictatorship.
  NCLB is, of course, totally illogical and non-productive.  Another example is the popular “Advanced Placement” which is sometimes touted as a tool for universally improving failing schools.  A professor in a Colorado college hit the nail on the head when she said “It is simply unbelievable that people think plopping down an “Advanced Placement” program is going to help that failing school.”
  So, I repeat, repeat, and repeat myself over and over when commenting on this matter.  I feel I am like the man, years ago, who claimed that “my mother sat on a phonograph needle when pregnant with me, but it didn’t affect me, didn’t affect me, didn’t affect me.”
  Skartishu, Granby MO

That’s the real problem I have with the situation, James.  On the one hand, you have a failing system that’s not-so-slowly corrupting.  It isolates kids from the community and forces conformist ideas on them about how their time should be spent and how they should think about things.

There are exceptions, but for example, a few years back, I filled in for a math class at a semi-prominent engineering college.  These “best and the brightest,” people who may now be designing bridges you and I will need to drive over, didn’t understand what I meant by “multiply the binomials.”  After showing them, I got a response of, “oh, FOIL.”  So, we don’t know how to do it in general, just learned a mnemonic?  That’ll end well…

So public schools are…less than optimal as they stand.

And yet, as you rightly point out, on the other extreme, there’s an army of corporations suggesting we give THEM taxpayer money so that corporate-run schools can come on line and distance kids even further from their communities…if they’re allowed to be educated at all.  And gosh, whatever motivation could a company like Disney possibly have (ABC often runs pro-charter school stories) for wantng direct, all-day access to the forming minds of children?

So let me make myself clear:  I do not believe that public schooling is a bad idea.  I do believe that structured pedagogical classes “taught from the book” to pass tests where you color in circles for a computer to read is a bad idea, though.

Didi, your comments remind me of a study on ADHD kids a few years back.  By observing complaints carefully, they discovered that most of the kids only showed behavioral problems when forced to sit through certain subjects or deal with certain authority figures.

Could it be, perhaps, that even children can see a waste of time when they see it, rather than needing drugs that make them feel like they’re suffocating…?

Wasn’t Ric Perry governor when the Texas school investigation took place?  Could the investigation have been less than honest so Texas could get government funding for schools?  And this guy is running for President?  However, the use of a financial goals type model for teaching has proven to be destructive and should be abandoned.  Yes, we need to expect more of teachers, administrators and students but let’s test the teachers, instead of the students, and put teachers to work teaching subjects they know and like.  The right teachers can work miracles and we have a lot of them.

Nancy, your comment reminds me of a study last year (I think) where they showed that financial incentives beyond subsistence levels were counterproductive.  That is, you could get better performance out of someone by offering them a job that’d get them out of poverty, but performance nosedives if you take a person in that situation and double their salary.

There may not be a direct connection, but given your comment about it being destructive, I wonder if there’s a clever solution in that insight of just not giving money to schools unless there’s a genuine need to cover minimal costs.

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