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13 December 1999

Our current howler: Expert tease

Synopsis: Bill O’Reilly wanted to know about cheating on tests. Alas! His show called in an expert.

Teachers are said to aid cheating
Abby Goodnough, The New York Times, 12/8/99

Commentary by Bill O’Reilly, Nina Rees
The O’Reilly Factor, Fox News Channel, 12/8/99

Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire
Anemona Hartocollis, The New York Times, 12/12/99

Commentary by Mike Barnicle
Hardball, CNBC, 12/10/99

Commentary by Ben Jones
Hardball, CNBC, 12/9/99

It wasn't Bill O'Reilly's fault. He wanted to know more about alleged cheating on standardized tests in New York's public schools. The New York Times had reported the story that morning (December 8); dozens of teachers and two principals had helped students cheat on standardized tests, according to a New York City school probe. The motive for the teachers?

ABBY GOODNOUGH: "Their purpose was simply to improve their own reputations and further their own careers by creating the illusion that they were doing a good job," Mr. [Edward] Stancik said.

Stancik was the chief investigator for the New York City schools.

To readers of the incomparable DAILY HOWLER, this story didn't come as a surprise. Cheating on standardized tests has been endemic in public schools since the early 1970s, when school systems began to use the tests to evaluate teachers and principals. In September, we described this problem in some detail as we critiqued a predictable 60 Minutes report (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/24/99). Anyone with the slightest clue about public schools would know that there have been repeated, documented cases of such cheating in public schools all over the nation, for years. Indeed, whenever we read about public systems tying these tests to graduation/promotion/pay/evaluations—and these stories appear in the papers all the time—we know we're reading about another school system that is gambling with this problem.

Too bad O'Reilly's guest didn't tell him that, but then, O'Reilly's producers had made a mistake—unwisely, they'd called in an "expert." It was Nina Rees, "senior analyst on educational policy at the Heritage Foundation." Here was O'Reilly's ice-breaker:

O'REILLY: You know, I suspect that if this is happening, Miss Rees, in New York, it's happening in other places as the pressure on schools to perform is mounting.

O'Reilly's instincts were right on the money. Here was the expert response:

REES: Well I certainly hope it's not a widespread practice. This whole notion of grading schools and attaching carrots and sticks based on performance is a fairly new concept and in the past in areas where there has been cheating it's been mainly related to a school's dismissing their bilingual students or their special education students in order to show better results. I have not ever heard of a case where teachers and principals were collaborating to tell students how to cheat in order to do better on the tests. So I hope it's an isolated case.

Has not ever heard of a case! Our own analysts—and they're not even "senior"—fell right on the floor as if shot. Over the past two decades, such cases have been repeatedly described in local newspapers (almost always treated as puzzling anomalies); we first wrote about such cases, we're sad to say, here in Baltimore in the early 1980s. (We first became aware of such practices in 1971.) How widespread is this kind of cheating? Here's how widespread—for an extra fee, test companies will actually scan a school system's answer sheets looking for unusual patterns of erasures. And why have companies developed that capability? Because documented cases of systematic erasure have been so widespread through the years! That's right—teachers simply erase wrong answers off students' answer sheets, and insert correct answers in their place! Rees had never heard of this—but testing companies have taken measures against it, the practice is so widespread.

Exactly how much of this sort of thing does go on? There's no way to say for certain, but as of 1987, a comical situation had developed nationwide; every state in the union was reporting statewide test scores above the national average! Every state! The syndrome was dubbed "The Lake Wobegon Effect" by education activist John Jacob Cannell, named for Garrison Keillor's mythical town "where the children are all above average." In 1989, Cannell published a booklet, "How Public Educators Cheat on Standardized Achievement Tests," which was full of anecdotes from teachers around the country about cheating that was done in their schools. Cannell enjoyed his fifteen minutes of fame, being featured throughout the mainstream press; we ourselves consulted with news shows on all three networks (including a 60 Minutes report about a celebrated case of cheating in South Carolina). But attention spans are brief in the biz, and mainstream news entities don't like these stories. Cannell's work provoked no systematic reforms, and was soon dropped, never mentioned again.

Last Wednesday, the Time gave the cheating allegations massive page-one coverage, and the paper has published several follow-up stories. We couldn't help thinking back to our own youthful days as Abby Goodnough described the probe:

GOODNOUGH: The investigation also singled out schools that had reported rapid and steep improvements in student performance, Mr. Stancik said.

Stancik gave the example of a fourth-grade girl whose reading score increased from the 12th percentile—meaning she outperformed only 12 percent of a nationwide sample of students—to the 81st percentile when her teacher gave her clues or answers. But the girl's score plummeted to the 19th percentile the next year, according to the report.

Our own incomparable work, back in 1981, described this same sort of pattern for entire grade groups. For text of one article, click here.

That was eighteen years ago. Since that time—although we don't specialize in educational matters—we have seen various published reports of documented cheating cases. Just yesterday, the Times alluded to one such case that may play a role in the White House campaign:

HARTOCOLLIS: Much the same sort of thing occurred recently in Texas, where school officials and politicians like Gov. George W. Bush were brandishing the results of a standardized test to claim victory over ignorance. There, too, a cheating scandal has erupted which calls some of the achievements into doubt.

This investigation could conceivably affect the White House race, depending on how widespread the problem may be.

At any rate, we hope the Times will pursue the New York City story, and relate it to larger national trends. An aggressive pursuit of this long-ignored story would provide an invaluable service. Urban systems love gimmicking scores to persuade the public that things are getting better. And newspapers love to print happy-talk stories about Urban School X that is doing so well—never asking if the school's test scores might reflect something other than learning. So are the interests of urban children sold out by their uncaring friends.

We also hope our old pal Bill will follow this story as it unfolds in New York. Bill—powerful interests will encourage confusion. Nobody ever likes stories like this. Interview teachers who reported this cheating. Search Lexis-Nexis for similar tales. But if you want the truth, don't call an expert. They'll recite boilerplate about what's wrong with the schools. But the truth is, they've never been in those schools—and they don't have a clue what is happening.



Coming tomorrow—the boys in the limo: Viewers of Sunday's Meet the Press got an odd account of New Hampshire's campaigning.

More experts: On Friday night, a tabloid talker called in Michael Medved and Dr. Alvin Poussaint to discuss this topic on his inventive show Hardball. There was no sign that either one of them had a clue about this, either. Do experts ever tell producers that they just don't know about a given topic?

Visit our incomparable archives: Again, click here for a 1981 article on the odd patterns the New York Times sniffed out eighteen years later.

Let's play dumbbell: Then again, some folks are expert at jumping on bandwagons. Mike Barnicle complained about Dumb Old Bush on Hardball Friday night:

BARNICLE: What I'm talking about is that in each debate and in each public appearance he seems to be referencing more and more to stupid things, like, "If Texas were a separate nation it would be the 11th largest economy, I just read a book about Dean Acheson," and he's a candidate by rote now more than he's a candidate by spirit, which McCain is.

Barnicle was reciting the Current Hot Story: Dumb Bush messed up the debates. Of course, Bush mentioned the Acheson book on December 2 in response to a direct question by Brit Hume. He mentioned the book on December 6 in response to a follow-up question by Judy Woodruff. Maybe they're the ones Mike thinks are stupid. Or maybe, to be honest, it's Barnicle himself. After complaining about Bush repeating stupid things, he went ahead and did the same thing himself:

BARNICLE: That's what I'm talking about earlier, you know, he would go back to Texas the 11th largest economy, I've just read a book about Dean Acheson...

Snore. Barnicle himself was repeating a silly thing—except no one was making him do it.

LPD II: We thought Richard Belzer had taken the prize for most stock items in a short Gore soundbite (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/29/99). Thursday night, Ben Jones tightened up Belzer's act:

JONES: If Al Gore is going to bounce around frenetically [1] in his earth tones [2] and act like Hubert Humphrey [3] on speed [4] then Bradley, all he's got to do is stay cool and it becomes a man—Bradley—versus a boy—Gore [5]. He doesn't even seem to know who he is [6], needs a media consultant [7] to tell him how to dress [8] and act [9]. This is a grown man.

Jones flubbed only his closing line, which was supposed to be, "He needs a feminist to tell him how to act like a grown man." It's astonishing that performances like those by Barnicle and Jones are found at the top of our public discourse.