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19 April 2001

Our current howler (part III): Still shocked after all these years

Synopsis: The press corps was shocked by the rash of cheating. But then, they’d been shocked by it ten years before.

Cheating on Rise Along With Testing
Jay Mathews, The Washington Post, 6/2/00

Commentary by John Donvan
Nightline, ABC, 6/6/00 ("Cheating 101")

Schools for scandal
Thomas Toch and Betsy Wagner, U.S. News & World Report, 4/27/92

NOTE: Earlier this year, we prepared this article for a separate purpose. We provide it as a follow-up to last week’s articles on the recent NAEP testing.

IN JUNE 2000, POTOMAC ELEMENTARY SCHOOL of Montgomery County, Maryland got its fifteen minutes of fame. The previous year, the school had ranked first in the county—third in the state—on the annual "MSPAP" achievement tests, the state-devised measure which Maryland uses to make its schools "accountable." But this year, Potomac Elementary had a slight problem. According to a June 1 report in the Washington Post, the school had apparently cheated on the April 2000 testing. And the charges were quickly admitted. The school’s highly-regarded principal had let students take too much time on the tests; had given students the answers to questions; and had helped students with essays that weren’t up to snuff. Eventually, the principal was forced to relinquish her teaching license, and the school’s test scores were tossed in the trashcan.

Perhaps because Potomac Elementary is located in an affluent community just outside Washington, the incident got heaps of attention. It was the subject of articles in Newsweek and Time, and it rated an evening on Nightline. But many discussions of Potomac’s mess noted similar incidents around the country. On the June 6 Nightline, for example, John Donvan noted "the apparent outbreak of cheating scandals nationwide in the past six months or so." On June 2, the Post had listed specific locales: "In the past two years alone," Jay Mathews wrote, "schools in New York, Texas, Florida, Ohio, Rhode Island, Kentucky and Maryland have investigated reports of improper or illegal efforts by teachers, principals and administrators to raise test scores."

Why were these incidents occurring? Mathews and Donvan agreed on the cause—accountability programs were putting pressure on the teachers and principals who administered the tests. School systems were linking standardized test scores to teacher pay, to teacher promotion, and to school certification and voucher programs. Mathews pointed to one result. "At a time when superintendents are under pressure to increase test scores and hold principals and teachers accountable for student achievement," he wrote, "talk of cheating dominates the conversation in education circles." According to Donvan and Mathews, teachers had begun to stretch the rules when pay and promotion were tied to the test scores.

Many observers, including Donvan and Mathews, suggested that the "epidemic" of cheating was new. In fact, documented cases of cheating on standardized tests have been common for at least three decades. The "rash of cheating" discussed in June 2000 was just the latest such rash to afflict our schools. But President Bush is now suggesting that more high-stakes decisions be tied to school testing. It’s time that the public and press got a better idea of just how troubled those programs may be. And it’s time that the press and the pols were forced to address the problems with "high-stakes testing."


WAS THERE SOMETHING NEW ABOUT THE "EPIDEMIC" discussed in June 2000? Hardly. Go back to 1987-88, when Dr. John Cannell, a West Virginia pediatrician and education activist, issued several remarkable reports. Cannell had discovered an amusing fact—as of 1987, all fifty states were officially reporting that their students were testing above the national average. Cannell called the phenomenon "The Lake Wobegon Effect," after Garrison Keillor’s mythical village where "the children are all above average." And he suggested an unpleasant explanation for the startling phenomenon—teachers and principals were cheating on tests. Cannell ran an ad in an education journal, soliciting first-hand accounts from teachers. According to Cannell, over 300 teachers wrote to tell him about outright cheating in their schools.

And make no mistake, we’re talking about cheating—not "coaching," or "over-emphasis," or "teaching to the test." What kinds of practices were described to Cannell—practices which have been documented, again and again, in cheating scandals all over the country? Teachers give students too much time to take the tests (destroying the basic notion of standardization). Teachers provide the right answers during the testing. Teachers make sure that slower students miss the testing (driving up the class/school average). And most incredibly, teachers simply erase the wrong answers and fill in the right ones when the kids have gone home for the day! These practices have all been documented, again and again, in incidents all around the country. So it wasn’t encouraging when Donvan and others seemed so surprised by the "new" rash of cases. Indeed, Donvan’s predecessors had voiced the same shock when Cannell spoke up twelve years before.

Like Potomac Elementary, the crusading Cannell got his fifteen minutes back in the late 1980s. He appeared on the NewsHour and on 60 Minutes, and his "Lake Wobegon" reports were widely discussed in the popular press and in educational circles. Education czar William Bennett praised his work. So did conservative education activist Chester Finn. Cannell’s reports were favorably cited by Morton Kondracke in the New Republic, and by David Gergen in U.S. News (1990). And a lengthy 1992 report in U.S. News laid out some remarkable facts. "Thirty-five percent of the participants in a 1990 survey of North Carolina teachers reported that they were aware of or involved in test tampering," the piece said. Other such surveys were reported.

Why, oh why, were these incidents happening? Donvan couldn’t have said it better. "The reason is clear," U.S. News said, all the way back in 1992. "The stakes in standardized testing have become tremendously high, for everyone from administrators and teachers to parents who own property within a school system’s borders." The magazine cited the very same causes reported with shock when Potomac went down. Accountability programs meant that high-stakes decisions were being tied to student test scores. Teachers and principals—affected by those judgments—were taking the law in their own hands.

President Bush is now suggesting that more pressure be put on these testing programs. The president’s suggestions may be well-intentioned. But until the nation comes to grips with the groaning problems we are newly shocked by every ten years, it would be foolish indeed to give teachers and principals more reasons to mess with these tests. In the meantime, sad to say, it is extremely unwise to put any faith in pleasing results from our testing programs.

Please note—there are ways to run a testing program so that outright cheating is less likely to happen. To state what ought to be groaningly obvious, teachers whose promotion and salaries are tied to a test should not be the ones to administer it. (And they shouldn’t have prior access to the specific questions which will appear on the tests.) But the current culture of school-based testing defines a troubling national problem. Equally scandalous? The way the education and press establishments keep sweeping this syndrome under the rug—pretending, each decade, to be shocked shocked shocked by the same problems that shocked them years earlier.

Under our current testing procedures, there is little reason—none at all—to put much faith in our standardized testing programs. If President Bush wants to base more decisions on the results of school-based testing, he simply must address the problems we pretend to be shocked by each decade. Potomac was one of many schools we’ve clucked at in the last thirty years. Will school closings be tied now to "student performance?" If so, get ready for many Potomac Elementaries—and for more deception of parents and public about the state of our nation’s public schools.


The occasional update (4/19/01)

Now they’ve even got Balz: We couldn’t help chuckling last Thursday morning as the pandering even reached all the way to Dan Balz. Balz and Dana Milbank had penned a frnt-page "analysis" of President Bush’s role in the China talks. "Behind Scenes, Bush Played Vigorous Role," the head said. And how did Dan and Dana know it? Because Bush’s aides told them, that’s how:

MILBANK AND BALZ (paragraph 3): As the details of Bush’s activities over the last 10 days trickled out, his advisers painted a picture of a president whose behind-the-scenes activity was more vigorous than the public perception of him often suggests.

The format is all too common, sad to say; aides are allowed to dictate a story as a payback for access or at a time of High Pandering. (The courtesy is extended to pols of both parties.) At any rate, the Turrible Tandem were pandering hard as they detailed the prez’s great work:

MILBANK AND BALZ (7): In one conversation with [Army Brig. Gen. Neal] Sealock, Bush’s questions were numerous, and detailed.

"How’s their health?" the president asked of the crew.

"Are they staying in the equivalent of officers’ quarters?"

"Are they getting any exercise?"

Mostly, the details of Bush’s involvement are consistent with his past management style: He set broad parameters and then dispatched his underlings to do the job, checking in regularly on points that particularly interested him. He also placed strong emphasis on public perceptions and demanded discipline from the small group of advisers he trusted to handle the matter.

We swear that’s what the Post pair penned. "How’s their health" was actually praised as an example of The Dub’s "detailed" queries.

The work was so silly it inspired an excellent letter ("Free for All," WashPost, April 14). Our congratulations to all who took part:

White House Propaganda

The front-page "analysis" of President Bush’s "vigorous" behind-the-scenes role in the China standoff was absolutely appalling [April 12]. Readers are assured, by the fact that the president apparently asked some questions, that he was firmly at the helm during the crisis.

And where did your reporters get their information? "Aides say," according to the headline buried on Page A22. Or, as the article admits, his "advisers painted a picture."

This is no analysis; it is spin, direct from the White House. The next time your paper wishes to spoon-feed administration propaganda to the public, please label it as such, rather than using a word that suggests the reporters made any attempt to analyze their sources.

—Lloyd Cale

As we’ve said, this kind of courtesy is offered to pols of both parties. In this case, the list of Bush’s "detailed" questions gave us our laugh for the week.

Behind Scenes, Bush Played Vigorous Role
Dana Milbank and Dan Balz, The Washington Post, 4/12/01