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How Education Reform Taught Teachers to Cheat

In school districts across the country, being held accountable for grades and graduation rates has motivated educators to tamper with results. Some places are starting to crack down on this temptation.
by | September 2018

Thirty years ago, the public schools in Prince George’s County, Md., were hailed as symbols of success. Their students ranked in the 70th percentile nationally in reading and math. Prince George’s seemed to be powerful evidence against the idea that a mostly black school district with a high concentration of children from low- to moderate-income families could not thrive. In the ensuing years, achieving success came to be more of a challenge. The schools began to see ever-larger concentrations of poor children, with nearly two-thirds of the students qualifying for free or reduced lunch.  

Even so, the numbers continued to look good for a few years. There was a simple reason for that, says Daniel Koretz, an education professor at Harvard University who has studied the county’s school system. In Koretz’ blunt words, the numbers were “juiced.” Test preparation was prioritized over genuine instruction. Children spent much of their time being trained to navigate the ever-more frequent exams and were tipped off on the actual test questions. The school district started test preparation in kindergarten for exams that students wouldn’t take until third grade. 

The first danger signal came when Maryland changed its state exams in the 1990s. The district’s scores plummeted. Only Baltimore city, heavily impacted by poverty, scored lower than Prince George’s on student performance in math and reading and in graduation rates. The poor performance in Prince George’s was underscored by the amount of money the district was spending. Just seven of Maryland’s 24 counties spent more per pupil than Prince George’s did.

By the early 2000s, enrollment was flagging as parents pulled their children from the struggling system. Prince George’s schools lost an average of 1,000 students per year from 2003 to 2013. The children who left the district were largely from middle-class and affluent families. While enrollment dropped, the percentage of children qualifying for free and reduced lunch rose 20 percent. Those children lagged behind their wealthier counterparts in academic achievement. 

In 2010, Rushern Baker was elected Prince George’s county executive. As enrollment continued to drop, and with it the funding to run one of the 25 largest school districts in the nation, Baker devised a reform plan. Copying aspects of school turnaround efforts in Boston, Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C., Baker leveraged his connections in the state Capitol to convince lawmakers to hand him control of the district. It would be Baker, and not the school board, who picked the school chief. Baker tapped Kevin Maxwell, a former principal, to run the district in 2013, and in 2017 he renewed Maxwell’s contract. The plan seemed to be working. After losing 13,000 students in fewer than 10 years, county schools saw an increase that brought them near their peak enrollment of 137,000 students in the early 2000s. With the increased enrollment, the district had the funds to offer more courses. Perhaps most important, graduation rates began to rise as well, increasing from 73 percent to 81 in four years.

 


In an effort to improve education, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker took control of the district away from the school board. (David Kidd)

 

With a seemingly successful turnaround under his belt, Baker launched a run for governor. But the turnaround, and specifically the higher graduation rate, were illusions. An audit conducted in 2017 by the management consulting firm of Alvarez & Marsal revealed that nearly 30 percent of the students who graduated from Prince George’s public high schools in 2016 and 2017 were granted diplomas after questionable grade changes. The audit revealed that 5,496 students received late grade alterations submitted after the grading deadline. When the auditors examined transcripts of 1,200 of those students, they could not verify that 297 of them had completed their graduation requirements. 

The auditors went on to allege that the cheating was extensive and involved not only teachers, but guidance counselors and school administrators as well. Students, according to the audit, were passed through a credit recovery program that teachers said watered down graduation requirements. Administrators graded makeup assignments. A handful of teachers said they could be punished for not passing enough students. A significant number of 2016 and 2017 graduates had more than 10 unauthorized absences, indicating that grading policies related to attendance were not being followed by some schools. 

At the center of the controversy was DuVal High School, which recorded a 92 percent graduation rate even though fewer than 1 in 4 students scored proficiently in reading and writing. The investigation led to the firing of three DuVal counselors, the resignation of an assistant principal and the principal’s retirement. Gov. Larry Hogan said he was not only “outraged at the report findings,” but also that the county wasn’t taking the problem seriously. He called for Maxwell’s dismissal. The graduation scandal, coupled with the revelation that administrators were receiving double-digit annual raises, including a 36 percent pay increase for one top official, forced Maxwell out in July of this year. 

The teachers union sees the resignation as a sign that county schools could start yet another turnaround. But they aren’t entirely confident that it will happen. “There are deep structural problems,” Theresa Mitchell Dudley of the Prince George’s Educators’ Association said in a statement, “and an unacceptable lack of accountability that must be addressed. If the next CEO is only accountable to one person -- the county executive -- that’s not good enough.” 

Baker’s attachment to the school scandal proved fatal to his campaign for governor. The Democrat who defeated him in the June primary, former NAACP official Ben Jealous, declared that “parents, students and teachers deserve better than what they have gotten from Maxwell and Baker.” 

Prince George’s County is far from the only school district where graduation rates have been pumped up, attendance records fudged or test scores inflated. Atlanta, Chicago, El Paso and Washington, D.C., have all been the subject of probes that revealed educators were gaming the system to boost either test numbers or graduation rates. The cheating by educators, says Koretz, was the result of “applied anxiety.” Teachers, administrators and faculty knew they needed to reach certain goals to satisfy the demands of parents, politicians and state policymakers. So, as in Maryland, they pushed through students who hadn’t met the requirements.

Indeed, the real culprit is the high-stakes numbers game that has dominated American public education in the past two decades. Test scores, graduation rates and attendance records all have been used to evaluate the performance of teachers, principals and administrators. The result, in many cases, has been a consistent invitation to bend the rules. “The higher the assessment stakes, the more likely the assessment is to be corrupted,” says Steve Tozer, coordinator of the Center for Urban Education Leadership at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “If you give someone an assessment with low stakes, their job is not on the line, there is little chance they will be tempted to cheat. When you raise those stakes, and their lives and jobs are on the line, there is more temptation.”

 

In the summer of 2000, Texas Gov. George W. Bush stepped to the podium in Philadelphia to accept the Republican nomination for president. Twenty-one minutes into his speech, Bush promised to rewrite the script on American education. He accused public schools of discrimination. For years, according to Bush, they had operated on a false premise that poor urban children were, with few exceptions, lost causes. Schools couldn’t move the needle on these children and had for decades allowed them to advance with their class even as many lacked basic literacy and numeracy skills. He called it “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” 

Bush’s plan came from his home state, and educators sometimes called it the “Texas Miracle.” It was a carrot-and-stick approach to improving student performance. Teachers would be expected to guide their students to annual progress through performance goals, or risk losing their jobs. Principals who failed to improve their schools were transferred, demoted or forced out. That was the stick. The carrot was that principals and administrators who met student performance targets could earn bonuses that ranged from $5,000 to $20,000. Under Bush’s federal plan, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, schools were similarly expected to improve or risk a withdrawal of funding from the U.S. Department of Education. At the same time, states were passing laws allowing them to take over failing schools and, in some cases, replace them with experimental and loosely regulated charter schools. All these efforts were backed by reams of data collected from standardized tests taken at regular intervals starting as early as the third grade. 

 


President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law in 2001 was the first major federal overhaul of education in 30 years. (AP)

 

NCLB, the first major federal overhaul of education in more than three decades, was based on the principle that what schools needed was competition. And in cities and states across the country, it transformed education. After its passage in 2001, annual test results were released, scores were made public and schools that continued to fail were shuttered. While national figures for the number of schools closed for failure to meet NCLB standards are not available, the law paved the way for closures and consolidation across the country. Since 2000, Chicago has closed or consolidated 160 schools. After Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, the state backed a takeover effort, based on the expansion of charter schools, that left the Orleans Parish School Board in control of five of 126 public schools in the city. 

The mounting pressure led educators across the country to turn from more holistic approaches to teaching to what soon became known as “drill and kill.” Students were taught to take tests, and educators across the country cut corners to reach numbers that signaled progress to parents and politicians. Teaching to the test isn’t cheating, but once the culture of replacing standard classroom principles with tactics to meet a metric are in place, Harvard’s Koretz says, “it doesn’t take much to get people to cheat.” 

NCLB also tied school and teacher evaluation to graduation rates. And when Bush was succeeded as president by Barack Obama in 2009, the stakes for educators remained in place. In 2015, Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), under which schools with poor graduation rates were required to enact further comprehensive efforts. Each state was required to set its own standard for what was needed to earn a high school diploma. National graduation rates increased, reaching a record high of 84 percent in 2016. But setting those graduation goals came with little input from classroom teachers. “The people who came up with the targets didn’t reach out to teachers and see what can realistically be reached.” Koretz says. “The numbers are just made up. People don’t know what the target should be -- they just want better rates.” 

 

Often the combination of graduation rates, student attendance and test scores is boiled down to a single number, as it is in the Chicago Public Schools. That number, which also factors in survey responses from teachers, is published on each school’s website. The idea behind the rankings has always been to give parents and students an idea of the school’s quality. Reducing a school’s performance to a single number has come with consequences. The school score, which ranges in Chicago from one to three, helps to determine a principal’s evaluation by the district and by the neighborhood-based school council, which can decide whether to renew the principal’s contract. Principals, according to Tozer of the Center for Urban Education Leadership, have resorted to “coaching teachers on their survey responses” and manipulating attendance records to improve their scores. 

When Bush brought the Texas Miracle to Washington, its architect Rod Paige came along. Paige became U.S. secretary of education after being lauded for his turnaround of the Houston Independent School District. When Paige ran that school system, the dropout rate was reported to have plummeted to 1.5 percent and the achievement gap between minority students and their white Anglo counterparts across the state was closing. However, subsequent media investigations and an analysis by researchers at Boston College showed that Houston officials were cooking the books. Schools were scrubbing hundreds of poor performers and dropouts from the rolls. The real dropout rate, according to one analysis, was closer to 25 percent, and the achievement gap was not closing nearly as impressively as the school system claimed. Black and Latino students were improving, but not by the margins Houston officials had reported.  

Across the state in El Paso, high stakes coupled with handsome rewards motivated a superintendent not only to cook the books, but to lock low-performing students out of an education. Lorenzo Garcia was a rising star in education. He was a two-time nominee for Texas superintendent of the year. Like many educators, however, Garcia feared a state takeover of his schools. He also had a contract laden with student performance incentives, and during his tenure, he collected $56,000 in bonuses for improving test scores. One way Garcia achieved his results was by keeping low-performing students from taking standardized exams. Grades were changed, and the worst-performing students were coerced to drop out of school. 

Questions about the performance measures in El Paso surfaced almost a decade ago, when state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh began noticing the absence of students during standardized testing periods. The Texas Education Agency claimed Shapleigh was misinterpreting student data, and closed a brief probe into the district in 2010 without finding evidence of cheating. Shapleigh called on the local newspaper to look more closely at the district. The El Paso Times spent more than a year filing public records requests and the appeals necessary to force the district to disclose more of its testing practices. In 2012, Texas education officials and the U.S. Department of Education reopened their investigation, and by year’s end Garcia was indicted for fraud and the school board was disbanded for providing insufficient oversight of the superintendent. Garcia was eventually sentenced to three years in prison.

Like Houston, Atlanta saw a dramatic turnaround in student performance in the early 2000s. In 2008, when the district reported significant improvement on state exams, schools hung banners over their entrances in celebration of the achievement. But when The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a series of articles questioning the results, the governor called for an investigation. Two years later, 180 employees, including more than three dozen principals, were implicated in cheating, which occurred in at least 44 schools. Some educators wore white plastic gloves when changing answer sheets on state exams, lest they leave fingerprints. An investigation by Georgia officials led to 35 indictments on charges ranging from racketeering to conspiracy. Ultimately, 21 defendants took plea deals and another 11 were convicted and sentenced to prison. 

 


More than 180 teachers and 36 principals were implicated in Atlanta’s cheating scandal. Eleven officials were convicted. (AP)

 

Very few school districts have in place personnel, departments or even mechanisms to sniff out cheating. “Unless the system designs roles and designs structures to catch cheating,” Tozer says, “the system won’t catch it. The system is designed under the assumption most people don’t cheat.” 

Often an honor system exists that presumes educators won’t cheat. That was the case in Prince George’s County, according to the Alvarez & Marsal audit. The district administration left it up to the schools themselves to “monitor adherence to grading policies and procedures,” the audit reported, and the district was “silent on the implications of noncompliance.” Fran Rabinowitz, who directs the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, says it is relatively easy to spot cheating if educators are looking at the right data set. “If you are looking at all the data,” she says, “and you’ve got places where growth and outcomes are out of line, those are the districts you should be monitoring.” In other words, officials in Prince George’s County should have seen that DuVal High School couldn’t have an honest 92 percent graduation rate and instead chose to ignore what was in front of them.

States and districts across the country are making efforts to eliminate cheating. Prince George’s County has released a plan to shift toward electronic grading to avoid future grade tampering. The Maryland State Board of Education has called for a second, longer audit of the county’s school system. Chicago has gone further -- its public schools now have an inspector general, specifically tasked with looking for unethical behavior. New York state, which has long used a battery of tests called the Regents exams as a sort of exit test for high school, has changed its grading policy. To avoid tampering, teachers in New York are no longer allowed to grade their own students’ exams. 

With so many cases of malfeasance, there are calls to pivot away from the current testing regime. But education scholars tend to discourage that approach. Used properly, they say, the standards codified under NCLB and expanded under ESSA allow educators to see the strengths and weaknesses of students, and the shortcomings of individual schools. Formative assessment, in which teachers and students are evaluated in a less rigid way at various times in the school year, would give both teachers and administrators enough data to work on performance. But those kinds of assessments don’t come with a single number, which much of the public has grown accustomed to seeing in school ratings. 

Is the answer decoupling student performance from teacher evaluations? Perhaps not. True, it’s been well documented that tying these evaluations to student performance has raised the stakes so high as to incentivize cheating. But those same assessments have given teachers and principals a better chance to identify which students are and are not learning and marshal resources to those falling behind. And despite all the problems, the idea that professional reputation and employment rest at least partially on student performance can be a strong motivation for improvement. The crucial question, still largely unanswered, is whether schools can find a way to navigate the tortuous path between accountability and temptation. 

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