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Schools Caught Cheating In Atlanta, Around The Country

First Posted: 08/08/11 09:52 AM ET Updated: 10/08/11 06:12 AM ET


Cizek, the testing forensics consultant, flatly rejects Ariely's contention that "cheating is very complex."

"When there's pressure to make deadlines, some people cut corners, like [plagiarizing New York Times reporter] Jayson Blair. People like [former baseball player] Roger Clemens take steroids. When there's political power, there's voter fraud," Cizek said. "Wherever there's incentives to be successful, people will find ways to cut those corners."

And Cizek conceded that the incentives to cheat have increased with a decade of education policy that uses scores on narrow standardized tests as a factor in many school managerial decisions, such as school funding, and in some cases, teacher pay.

"The stakes are higher than they have been in the past," he said. "K-12 has not had an accountability system until the last 10 to 15 years. That sort of newness has really caused a ripple in the system."


Cizek predicts that as education gets used to being measured, cheating will normalize and decline. Long before his trip to Indianapolis, he had seen cheating firsthand.

Cizek was teaching a course on testing and grading to master's students at the University of Toledo in 1997. He proctored his own final exam, with 60 multiple-choice questions followed by eight essays. Like any good proctor, he had students sit a seat apart with their books out of sight, and didn't notice anything suspicious during the test itself.

While he was grading, though, he thought he was having déjà vu. One essay felt familiar. "It wasn't just familiar -- I flipped back, and it was word-for-word identical to another," he says.

Then he came across another identical essay, and another, and another. The students with the same essays had each answered 59 of 60 multiple choice questions correctly, but missed the same one. Paper-watching wasn't possible, though, because they were sitting far away from each other during the exam. "They said it was a miracle," Cizek recalls.

The professor found a simpler answer. He examined the exams further and discovered extra staple holes in the suspect papers, which were attached to copies of the exam fuzzier than the ones he handed out in class. Their pages had identical smudges. And their essay pages were creased, lengthwise and across.

Cizek's conclusion, six months later: "They duplicated the entire test after breaking into my office. They pre-wrote their essays, folded them up, and stuck it in their pockets so that they could pull them out, remove the staple, slide the blank essay question out, slide their completed version in, and push the staple back."

After a three-year series of hearings, the cheaters ultimately failed the class. But the experience changed the course of Cizek's career.

He tried and failed to find a guide on detecting classroom cheating, so he wrote one himself. He took a sabbatical and traced academic cheating back to its origins. At Princeton University's East Asian Library, he found a garment that applicants would use to cheat the Chinese civil service exam -- with compositions based on Confucian essays written into its long sleeves.

After publishing his book, Cizek became a go-to consultant for cheating cases. He first encountered teacher cheating at a casual meeting in Michigan 12 years ago, where a school principal said, "Before we send our tests in, we check our tests for stray marks." Then he winked, and added, "like wrong answers." Cizek said he could tell from the principal's tone that he wasn't joking. "I didn't know what to think at the time," he said. "It was clear that they're not really looking for stray marks. They're looking to change wrong answers to correct ones."

Cizek's first consulting work on suspected teacher cheating came a few years later in New Jersey, in the pre-NCLB era before the dawn of state standardized tests. Schools used their own achievement and ability tests to track learning. In one classroom, the ability scores were much higher than the achievement scores. Cizek helped discover that one teacher changed all the students' answers, but had cheated on the wrong test. "She made them all look like underachieving geniuses," Cizek said. The district asked him to conduct statistical analysis, and the teacher was fired. She later found work teaching in another district.

Cizek cautions that his analysis alone is not definitive proof of cheating. "My explanation can't prove that the teacher did anything," he says. "But it can prove that it wasn't just random, or just a fluke, here or there. You form a hypothesis." In certain instances, superintendents have apologized to schools whose tests were prematurely invalidated by falsely alarming erasure analyses. In Atlanta, however, confessions by educators confirmed the cheating hypothesis.


Reports of educators cheating on behalf of students on standardized tests have spiked in recent years.

"I've never seen so many cheating scandals as there have been in the last few years," said Diane Ravitch, a New York University education historian and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

Since her time in the executive branch, Ravitch has become the face of a loud group of critics of what she describes as the corporatization of education policy. "As we get closer to this deadline of [100 percent proficiency under NCLB by] 2014, it's not surprising that there are schools and districts where these things happen again and again," she said.

Earlier this year, a USA Today investigation found suspicious score improvements and erasure patterns on Washington, D.C., standardized tests. The reports led to heightened scrutiny of former district schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, a divisive figure in education policy who often boasts of score gains under her tenure. District authorities have begun a formal investigation, joined by federal agents following the release of the Atlanta report.

The Atlanta report came a month after a smaller episode in Baltimore, where Andres Alonso, CEO of Baltimore's schools, announced that his office had found evidence of cheating over the previous two years at two district elementary schools. Alonso then publicly promised that Baltimore's next standardized tests would have the most "extraordinarily transparent set of scores of any urban district in America."

The week after the Atlanta report's release, it was Pennsylvania's turn. The blog Philadelphia Public Schools Notebook published an erasure report the state conducted on its 2009 standardized test scores. That report flagged 60 schools statewide with suspicious gains and erasure marks on standardized exams. "The odds that the wrong-to-right erasure patterns that showed up on Roosevelt [Middle School]'s 7th grade reading response sheets occurred purely by chance were slightly less than 1 in 100 trillion," the blog reported.

Pennsylvania Department of Education spokesman Timothy Eller said his office only became aware of the report after the blog had requested it. "We're now at the first stage of an investigation process," he said. "We're having the districts named look into it and explain it to the department within 30 days. The reports that come back will be reviewed by the DOE." Eller added that Pennsylvania teachers fired for cheating lose their teaching certification.

The federal government has noticed the spate of cheating cases. "Folks are really paying attention to this," Duncan told The Huffington Post in light of the Atlanta and Pennsylvania revelations. "There's a greater awareness of the issues and trying to do things the right way. We put out guidance to states on this. You've got to take the state tests very seriously. You can't cheat children. You can't hurt children. That's exactly what you're doing."

Shortly after Alonso's announcement, Education Secretary Duncan addressed cheating in a letter to state superintendents of education:

I am writing to urge you to do everything you can to ensure the integrity of the data used to measure student achievement and ensure meaningful educational accountability in your State. As I'm sure you know, even the hint of testing irregularities and misconduct in the test administration process could call into question school reform efforts and undermine the State accountability systems that you have painstakingly built over the past decade.

Yet not long after the Pennsylvania report saw the light of day, the Asbury Park Press published the results of recent erasure analyses in New Jersey, which flagged irregular erasure marks on tests from several schools in the state.