Ken Hare In Depth: Don't blame educator cheating on high-stakes testing

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - With aninvestigation still in progress into a grade-changing scandal by teachers andadministrators in the Montgomery Public School System, Alabamians shouldrealize that educator cheating is not as uncommon as they might believe.

According to theNational Center for Fair and Open Testing, a group that advocates for theelimination of reliance on high-stakes testing in schools, educator cheatinghas been identified in 37 states (including Alabama) and the District ofColumbia in the past four academic years. The center also claims it hasdocumented more than 50 ways that schools improperly inflate student achievementand test scores.

Allegations ofeducator cheating around the nation have spurred teacher groups and others toblame the cheating on the reliance on high-stakes testing in public education.

While thedisclosures of educator cheating have risen as reliance on standardized testshas increased, it seems to me that somehow blaming the testing for the cheatingis ethically repugnant.

The highestprofile case of educator cheating is in Atlanta, where more than 30 educatorshave been indicted on charges involving allegations of illegally changingstudent test results. But the center claims that cheating also has beenreported in Baltimore, Cincinnati, Detroit, El Paso, Houston, Los Angeles,Newark, New York City and Philadelphia.

It is importantto note that the cheating scandal in Montgomery does not appear to involvehigh-stakes standardized tests. While the Alabama State Department of Educationhas not concluded its extended investigation into the Montgomery system,everything revealed publicly to date has involved a handful of educatorschanging the course grades of about 200 students at three Montgomery highschools -- changes that would make them more likely to graduate.  (A State Department of Education official indicatedthis week that the Montgomery investigation still is ongoing and that thedepartment would have no comment until it was complete.)

But anotherAlabama school system has been pulled into the public debate over educatorcheating. The Atlanta JournalConstitution, which first broke the story of the Atlanta cheating scandal,reported last year that it had used a statistical analysis of test scores andtest erasures to suggest that results of standardized tests of students in theMobile school system were tainted.

State Superintendent of EducationTommy Bice was quoted by the AJC last year as dismissing the value of systematic screening methods suchas erasure analysis, which is used by many states to look for suspiciouschanges to answers.

"Youstart doing that, you're on a witch hunt," Bice said. "It's a demoralizingthing unless there's a reason. We try to be a state where we deal with thepeople who make bad choices individually and not set policy based on that."

Whichbrings us to the basic questions of this column: Should the growing disclosuresof educator cheating mean that high-stakes testing of students should end orthat such tests should no longer be used to determine whether schools or schoolsystems are failing students?

SallyHowell, executive director of the Alabama Association of School Boards,acknowledges that there can be problems with standardized testing, but says,"We shouldn't throw the baby out with the bath water."

Shesaid the data provided by such testing is crucial to measuring student growthand how much progress a teacher or a school has made with students.

ThomasRains, policy director for Alabama's A Plus Education Partnership, also defendsthe need for continued testing as a way to measure teacher and schooleffectiveness. But he notes that it needs to be only part of an overallapproach to measuring effectiveness; that student testing data needs to be usedwith other information such as teacher evaluations.

Rainspoints to a recent report, Measures of Effective Teaching, as a good beginningpoint for understanding the debate on the best ways to evaluate teachers. Thereport, issued in January, suggests a mixture of multiple measures -- testingof students to show progress, testing teachers to ensure they know theirsubjects and how to teach them, student surveys, and direct observation ofteachers in the classroom.

[EXTRA: Measure of Effective Teaching]

Rainsalso suggests that results of tests of student progress need to be provided toteachers in a much more timely manner so that they "can use it to help seea better path forward for their students."

All of this leads me to conclude that Alabamaneeds to expand its public debate on how to improve testing so that it can bebetter utilized to help teachers improve individual student performance. Thestate also needs to address how best to use test data as part of an overallmeasure of teacher and school effectiveness.

In other words, there is aneed in Alabama and in the nation for a public debate about high-stakes testing. But educatorcheating has no place in that debate. Suggesting that high-stakes tests somehowinevitably lead to cheating ignores the fact that even with recent disclosures,the vast majority of educators do not cheat.

Andsuggesting that reliance on such tests should be eliminated because of cheatingalso serves as an excuse for dishonesty and outright fraud.Schoolsystems need to put strong measures in place to prevent educator cheating, andthey need to get anyone who engages in it out of the education profession.  But cheating scandals should have no place inthe debate over the use of testing in public education.

[ON THE WEB: The National Center for Fair and Open Testing - Cheating Report and 50 Ways Schools Manipulate Test Scores]


Ken Hare was a longtimeAlabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes aregular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at

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