Assessment

N.Y.C. Probe Levels Test-Cheating Charges

By David J. Hoff — December 15, 1999 5 min read
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More than 50 New York City educators face dismissal after an independent auditor accused them of helping students cheat on standardized tests given by the city and the state.

City Schools Chancellor Rudolph F. Crew said he would use the evidence collected by city investigators in upcoming administrative hearings to determine whether the tenured employees will be fired.

“I want to make an example of people who have cheated,” Mr. Crew said in an interview. “I’m going to be as harsh as the day is long on the people who are culpable. I will fire them as quickly as I possibly can.”

The report, issued last week by the special commissioner of investigation for the district, says investigators uncovered cheating in 32 of the city’s 675 elementary and middle schools on exams that determine student promotions, school rankings, and appraisals of principals’ performance.

The investigation found that teachers and principals routinely prepped students for the exams, prompted them to give correct answers, and even completed portions of the exams for them.

The United Federation of Teachers, the 140,000-member union that represents the city’s teachers, has commissioned a review of the report by a former assistant district attorney to determine whether the special commissioner’s office portrayed the evidence fairly.

Investigators may have asked young children leading questions to elicit information or collected evidence without identifying themselves, according to Randi Weingarten, the president of the UFT, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

Small Potatoes

While both Mr. Crew and Ms. Weingarten said they did not condone cheating, they downplayed the scope of the scandal in the 1.1 million-student district. The report suggests that the scores of up to 1,000 students were tainted by cheating adults. That is less than one-quarter of 1 percent of the children the school system tested in 1998, Mr. Crew said.

And Ms. Weingarten, in a statement, said that the investigation began after UFT members tipped off the office of Special Commissioner Edward F. Stancik.

Most of the cheating documented in the report occurred on standardized reading and mathematics tests given annually by the city to track progress of 3rd through 8th graders. It also uncovered improper activities in two schools on the state’s 4th grade language arts tests, which were given for the first time in January.

But Mr. Stancik, who is independent of both the school system and the city government, said he suspected that the deceitfulness extended beyond the schools his office investigated.

“The methods that were used seem to be widely known,” he said in an interview. “We’d be very lucky indeed if these were the only ones cheating.”

On the Rise

Cheating has probably occurred as long as tests have been given. But the increased importance of tests may be a factor in the rise of cheating, according to the Educational Testing Service. The nation’s leading test-maker recently launched an advertising campaign aimed at cutting back on academic cheating.

“Anytime you put pressure on the system, people will find ways to deal with it,” said Gary Natriello, a professor of sociology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. “One of the ways they deal with it is by cheating. I suspect there’s a lot more [cheating] than [Mr. Stancik] deals with in his report.”

Mr. Natriello predicted that reports similar to Mr. Stancik’s would increase as states and districts phase in policies that reward teachers based on student test scores or deny students high school diplomas for failing a test.

In New York, city and school officials rely on student test scores for a variety of decisions. Principals’ annual reviews are based, in part, on their schools’ test scores, and poor-performing schools are placed on a state watch list called Schools Under Registration Review, known as SURR. This past summer, the New York City board of education voted to shut down 14 schools because of persistently low scores. (“Shakeup in N.Y.C. Puts Troubled Schools on the Hot Seat,” July 14, 1999.)

In at least two cases Mr. Stancik investigated, schools were removed from the SURR list based on questionable test scores.

Richard P. Mills, the state commissioner of education, said in a statement that he would review the report and take “whatever action is appropriate.”

But Mr. Crew said he would not change his push to demand higher student achievement and to penalize school officials for failing to help them reach it.

“I don’t intend to relieve that pressure,” he said. “I’m not going to relieve it just to accommodate a group of people who ought to be fired in the first place.”

Practice Makes Perfect

The adults charged with cheating employed several techniques in order to secure high scores without raising suspicion about sudden success. At PS 234 in the Bronx, the report says, teachers prepared students in the days leading up to the exam by giving them questions that appeared on the assessment.

On the test day, the proctors handed out scrap paper for students to record answers. Principal Evelyn Hey, who investigators say created a cheat sheet with the correct answers on it, looked over children’s shoulders and told them when they needed to change their answer, according to the report. Once she considered a student’s answers good enough, she gave them an official form to fill in the bubbles, the report says.

Ms. Hey has declined to speak with investigators, Mr. Stancik said, or with reporters since the report was issued Dec. 7. She was reassigned to her local district office pending dismissal hearings, as were the other 51 principals, teachers, and aides cited in the report.

By using scrap paper, the report says, the school officials ensured that the answer booklets did not have a high number of erasures—something computer scanners can detect and flag as a sign of adult interference with the scores.

Sometimes teachers allowed students to answer difficult problems incorrectly, knowing that raising scores too high would lead to an investigation, according to the report.

In other cases, adults simply did the work for the students, says the special commissioner’s report. One teacher was caught erasing answer sheets and filling in the correct answers. A teacher’s aide completed a student’s essay while he was in the restroom, according to evidence collected by the special commissioner.

Mr. Crew said that even before the report came out, the school system had hired monitors who arrive at schools the day of the exam to ensure that test booklets aren’t opened before they are given to students and that proctors aren’t aiding test-takers.

The procedures appear to be helping. Seven of the educators cited by Mr. Stancik had already been removed from their schools because school officials had uncovered other allegations of wrongdoing, Mr. Crew said.

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A version of this article appeared in the December 15, 1999 edition of Education Week as N.Y.C. Probe Levels Test-Cheating Charges

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