EDUCATION
11/27/2012 04:32 pm ET Updated Nov 27, 2012

Teacher Cheating Ring Investigation In Memphis Points To Broader Licensing Issues

The teacher cheating ring that operated in Memphis for 15 years shines a light on the murky world of teacher licensing, experts say.

Federal prosecutors recently obtained an indictment of Clarence Mumford Sr. for allegedly running a scam that enlisted ringers to take the Praxis teacher-licensing exam on behalf of would-be teachers in Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi. According to the indictment obtained by Western Tennessee's U.S. Attorney Edward Stanton III, Mumford, a former assistant principal, received between $1,500 and $3,000 for each test his ringers took. To get his test-takers into the room, he allegedly created fake identification cards and Social Security numbers.

Since the grand jury indicted Mumford this summer, the case -- highlighted by the Associated Press this weekend -- has expanded to include Mumford's son and several other teachers. His son, Clarence Mumford Jr., was indicted with having one such ringer take the test for him and then using his phony credentials to get a job. The middle-man whose alleged deception first tipped off investigators is scheduled to be sentenced on Dec. 7.

The Praxis is a teacher licensing exam used in 37 states, and is run by the Educational Testing Service.

In light of the breach, some are calling for an overhaul of the security procedures around teacher licensing exams. "The fact that this has been going on for so long and the whistle has only been blown now, that's grievous," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. "If one sees something like that, action should be taken immediately. Security has to be revisited. This is a black eye."

Tom Ewing, an ETS spokesperson, told HuffPost that Praxis' security procedures haven't specifically been updated since the discovery of the cheating ring. "It's already a very, very thorough process that involves multiple government-issued ID checks, observation during testing, diagnosis of test scores after the fact," he said.

Issues with testing run the gamut from test security to rigor to a lack of a unified measure for what teachers should know before they step into the classroom. "There's different, contradictory exams in different places across the United States," Weingarten told The Huffington Post. "There's not one system that actually helps ensure that teachers feel prepared."

The bigger picture on teacher licensing exams, some say, is that they're too easy to begin with: Between 84 and 98 percent of test takers pass the Praxis, and according to a study by the Education Trust, none of the sections on the test "exceeded high school level." The education reform movement is fixated on improving teacher quality by making evaluations more rigorous and generally reforming the education preparation sector. Part of that agenda, supported by union officials and reform leaders alike, is to make teacher licensing exams significantly harder so that they screen out unqualified applicants before they ever make it to a classroom.

But as tests get harder, frauds like the those allegedly perpetrated in Memphis are likely to increase. "The harder it is to pass an exam, the easier it is to succumb to that pressure to cheat," said John Fremer, a former ETS employee who now works as the president of Caveon Test Security.

Discussions around teacher licensing exams echo much of the rhetoric around concerns with standardized testing for students in lower grades. In 2011, investigators in Georgia reported uncovering a massive cheating scandal in which teachers and principals in 44 schools altered student test scores, largely in response to consequences tied to test results.

"Cheating is always an outcome of anything that's hard to do if you don't think you can do it," said Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, who favors making the tests harder. "Human beings are going to cheat."

On Monday, Weingarten's AFT launched a campaign to "end the fixation" on standardized testing. Weingarten said the campaign will seek a viable replacement for the heavy emphasis on testing. Weingarten has also called for the creation of a "bar exam" for teachers, and the AFT, the nation's second-largest teacher's union, plans to release a detailed report on the topic next week.

But in the meantime, questions about Praxis security remain. "Why it took so long to catch this case, that's a great unanswered question," said Bob Schaeffer, who heads the group FairTest, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates against the heavy use of standardized testing. "Impersonation is easy to detect. Once you catch one person doing it, you unravel the ring."

Officials at Stanton's office declined to comment on the record, saying the investigation was ongoing. Mumford's attorney did not respond for requests for comment.

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