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Retest D.C. Classes That Had Dubious Exam Results in '08

My colleague Bill Turque's energetic coverage of suspicious erasures on D.C. school standardized tests in 2008 reminds me of my attempt many years ago to delve into the only classroom cheating scandal ever to become a major motion picture.

This happened at Garfield High in East Los Angeles in 1982. Fourteen students at that impoverished neighborhood school were suspected of cheating on an Advanced Placement calculus exam. Twelve of them took the test again and passed. Six years later, the film "Stand and Deliver," with Garfield math teacher Jaime Escalante played by Edward James Olmos, turned the incident into a legend and boosted a national effort to bring challenging courses to low-income schools.

The film left the cheating question up in the air. But a book I wrote about Escalante showed that at least nine students were involved in copying an answer for one question on the first test and then proved in the retest that they knew their subject and that our academic expectations for inner-city children were much too low.

Despite Turque's good work, I fear we will never have the same certainty about the irregularities on the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System (DC-CAS) tests. Thirty-four students in a class at Bowen Elementary School in Southwest Washington averaged more than 10 wrong-to-right erasures on the exam, five times the citywide average. Similarly questionable results turned up in some other schools. But the CTB/McGraw-Hill expert who reported this recommended that we "not draw conclusions about cheating."

We are left with unresolved doubts and disagreements, poisoning attitudes toward school improvement without answering the key question: Did our kids learn the subject matter, or not?

There has always been cheating in schools, as well as in businesses, government agencies and even churches. We are a clever, devious primate species, always looking for an edge. Whatever school achievement assessments we use -- tests, portfolios, inspections -- somebody will seek an advantage.

Often we shrug at this. Several years ago one of The Washington Post's best reporters, Justin Blum, developed evidence of exam-fixing by an elementary school principal. Blum reported as much of this as he could, but no one confessed and the school district took little action.

At Garfield, it took me five years to get to the truth of that one incident. Ten students agreed to sign waivers so the College Board could show me their exam papers. The calculus test was a distant memory, their lives were going well and I think they assumed that since their old teacher blessed my book project, I would reveal nothing that put them in a bad light. I thought my inspection of the exams would clear them.

Instead, I found that nine of the 10 had made identical silly mistakes on free-response question number 6. That could only mean at least eight had copied from the same source, perhaps the ninth person. I got two of them to admit that in a moment of panic near the end of the exam, somebody had passed around a piece of paper with that flawed solution.

Yet they knew their stuff, and would have done no worse if they hadn't cheated. The counselor who proctored the exam apparently missed the note-passing. When the nine students whom I knew had cheated, plus three more, retook the exam in August -- with little time to review and two proctors watching their every move -- they once again did very well, mostly 4s and 5s on the 5-point exam. The answer to the important question was obvious: They learned a lot.

Retesting is a standard option for AP exams when results are questioned. What would have happened if the Garfield students had not followed Escalante's suggestion to give it another try? Many people would have assumed that the school's success was bogus, that the children of seamstresses and day laborers were incapable of mastering something as difficult as calculus.

Teachers at other schools would not have been inspired to give low-income students extra time and encouragement to learn. I would not have one of my favorite statistics: In 1987, 27 percent of all Mexican Americans who scored 3 or higher on the calculus AP exam were students at Garfield High.

What can we do about the tainted test results in the District? The doubts encourage those who want to get rid of standardized tests but have demonstrated no practical, affordable alternatives. Many educators who have found such testing useful, to guide their teaching and win credibility for their schools, will have their good work questioned.

Why not do what Garfield did? In D.C. classrooms that had the most dubious results, let's get the students back together and give them another test, this time carefully proctored. I realize that they are now more than a year older. I hope we address these issues more promptly in the future. But I still think the retest will tell us something.

Perhaps they erased bad answers the first time because they conscientiously went back and checked their work. Or someone coached them during the exam or changed wrong answers for them afterward.

Having them take another test won't solve those mysteries, but providing D.C. kids the educations they deserve is too important to leave this in limbo. Let's check, as they did in East L.A., and make sure we know how much our children have learned.

By Washington Post editors  | September 14, 2009; 8:26 AM ET
Categories:  Metro Monday  
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As a former industrial engineer, it is my opinion that it is not always the students who cheat. I suggest examining the records of School administrators, their bosses and their subordinates, all of whom take pride and rewards from great achievements.

Posted by: irvingslott | September 14, 2009 10:47 AM | Report abuse

Yes, the Jaime Escalente situation centered around a small group of students who were suspected of cheating. The present suspicion centers around administrators who pressure teachers to drill children on test items throughout the year. There is also some indication that answers are being changed.

The leadership of District schools has indicated that she believes that teaching to the test is the same as teaching the curriculum. Of course, that is not the case, as any testing expert will explain. The test provides sample items that represent what has been learned. Teachers are not supposed to drill students on these sample items and they are definitely not supposed to change answers. I hope Bill Turque continues with his investigation until he finds someone who is interested in the integrity of these test scores.

Sadly, the "miracles" occurring in education since the time of Rod Paige and the "Texas Miracle" have depended on unethical manipulation of test scores. It's extremely easy to do and difficult to prove. I'm hoping teachers will insist on many forms of the test for next year as well as administration by people other than major stakeholders. Citizens have a right to fairness and truth in testing.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | September 14, 2009 12:33 PM | Report abuse

Right, irvingslott - and what you may not know is that in this situation, the students had no motivation to cheat - the test results had no bearing on their grades. Only the adults had something to lose -- their jobs.

Jay Mathews knows this, but for some reason, uses his bully pulpit to obfuscate instead of to inform.

I think he should be graded down for that.

Posted by: efavorite | September 14, 2009 11:30 PM | Report abuse

Being graded by readers is certainly fair, but I think it is also fair to say that whenever signs of cheating have arisen in anything I have been covering, I have gone to great lengths to get at the truth, the Garfield cheating being a prime example. I am the only journalist who ever took the trouble to investigate the facts of that famous case, or report what I found, which wasn't easy because many of the former students I exposed tried to turn the school, and Escalante, against me in reaction to the book. I wrote about the cheating scandal that involved the student body president at a Montgomery County high school. I wrote about the latest DC troubles. I have addressed the issue regularly. But as I told someone who emailed me, and asked why I was not demanding that we denounce the students and administrators and get them to see that what they are doing is wrong and should be punished severely, that is a losing argument in this culture. We think of school cheating the same way we think of speeding---yeah, its wrong, but its not a big deal and if we can get away with it, we occasionally do it. I think that attitude is reprehensible, but I have been on the planet a long time and figured out it is not going to change no matter how many strong moral stands we take. (And speeding, keep is mind, is even worse than test cheating, since it is, unlike cheating, both illegal and dangerous.) The way to handle this is to monitor the tests carefully, and investigate irregularities, holding retests--as I said in the column--when necessary. I wish the people in Texas took the data on possible cheating in Houston and Dallas more seriously, but they haven't done so, and given the way this culture thinks about cheating, I don't expect much change on that issue. If readers know of any school that has ever made any significant headway on this, let me know. It would be rare, and thus a good story.

Posted by: jaymathews | September 15, 2009 9:57 AM | Report abuse

Jay – I don’t think anyone here has impugned your reporting of the Garfield cheating story. The issue, for me at least, is that you likened it to the current situation in DC, when it’s really quite different. This then misleads people whose only information comes from your reporting.

I agree with your disheartening take on cheating as a cultural issue, but this situation isn’t a simple cheating story. It’s about lying about cheating and covering up suspected cheating at the highest levels. It looks like the head of the school board resigned over it. The Chancellor, who demands accountability and is basing her school reform success on quickly rising DC-CAS scores, withheld information about suspected cheating until after another round of tests had been given, then said that she had “no concerns about the integrity of the 2008 tests.”* She and the Mayor probably would still be quiet about it if Turque hadn’t gotten some information on it through his FOIA request.

There are other signals that the Chancellor’s relationship to data should be watched and reported on. She has been has frequently boasted about the dramatic, but undocumented gains she made as a young teacher. Her office recently provided inaccurate information to PBS about Shaw Middle School’s scores which PBS had to correct on its website.* And of course there’s the as yet unreported final chapter on Shaw, whose expected success, reported extensively by you and touted widely by the Chancellor, ultimately did not happen.

This is about much more than cheating on tests, it’s about manipulating data by people at the top with the power to do it much more effectively and extensively than cheating kids or principals ever could. Equating this to simple instances of cheating on tests then and writing it off as an accepted cultural phenomenon could be a major disservice to school reform and to the education of DC’s public school children. Please don’t do it, Jay.

*references, in order mentioned above

Posted by: efavorite | September 15, 2009 1:53 PM | Report abuse

And just how would the affected students benefit by taing yet another test?

Posted by: acnorthstar | September 16, 2009 7:35 AM | Report abuse

eFavorite: Great analysis! Great Job! Way to push for the truth!
Jay Matthews: Disappointing. eFavorite is right, it is not about students cheating (there are no stakes for them--it is not part of their grade, and the test results for elementary school are primarily for adults--and anyone who knows about education knows that). Adults cheated on that test.

Further, I felt that it was purposefully misleading to reference and link to Bill Turque's first two articles and NOT link to his last on his blog that provides the crucial information about Rhee/Nickles/Reinoso not commissioning a study or report and Nickles instead saying "it was really more of an erasure conversation" NOT an erasure analysis! For those that want to read the whole story so far see Bill Turque's last article (even though the WashPost did not publish it outside of his blog) here is the link:

Rhee released her opening of school report under this introduction:
"DCPS should be held accountable for a successful and smooth school opening. And since accountability demands transparency,..."
Mr. Matthew's article provides NEITHER TRANSPARENCY or ACCOUNTABILITY regarding this DC CAS cheating scandal.

Two last points: ONE: just to clarify, it is absurd to suggest that 7th graders be rested on their 2008 5th grade DC CAS, or 6th graders be restested on their 4th grade DC CAS, etc. The teachers those students had last year worked to address deficits they had in 2008. The curriculum is spiraling in elementary school, so the same content is taught over again each year while introducing new skills. SECOND: test security right now is having someone from the central office observe teachers checking in and checking out the tests everyday (does eliminate some problems and in reality these issues haven't been issues before Rhee), but it is misleading for Rhee to say that they have addressed that issue entirely.

It would be nice if Rhee's priority was really about student learning and less about her public relations and news releases. How about an article about that? This DCPS administration's unprecedented focus on press (like test scores) and making itself look good (like its misleading opening day report) and its lack of focus on the intangibles (and hard to publicize) of what really makes kids learn and teachers teach. What about that?

Posted by: mfalcon | September 16, 2009 9:06 AM | Report abuse

I appreciate all these thoughtful and well-meant comments, but listen to yourselves for a moment. You are falling into an old trap--focusing on adult rather than kid issues. All of your concerns about the politics and administrative maneuvering and unanswered questions are legitimate, but they are exactly the sort of disputes that have kept urban schools districts lagging far behind. All that energy and attention expended on fights over process and disclosure and personal agendas is energy that is not spent on helping kids raise their level of achievement. That was the point of the column. If some adults cooked the books, that is reprehensible and should be checked out, but our FIRST move should not be to try to find the culprit (which my long history with this issue has convinced me is very hard to do) but find out if the kids who allegedly did NOT know the subject matter are still lagging behind. There are many ways to check this. Pulling them in and giving them another test is just one of them. But it seems to me to be among the most direct and most efficient. Once again, we are taking our eye off the ball, and that's bad. Whenever we are all getting excited about who did what to whom, we should remind ourselves that that is a prime indication of our getting off track.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | September 16, 2009 12:58 PM | Report abuse

I note that efavorite, whose comments are always smart and erudite, suggests there are no stakes for the kids in this dispute. A rare misstep by efavorite. If an adult decided those kids were doing so poorly on the test that the answers had to be changed, that means they were likely not performing up to their potential. To kiss that off as unimportant for kids because the test results won't affect their GRADES is to really miss the point. I don't care what their grades are. I care what they are learning, and covering up their failure to learn DOES affect them, a lot.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | September 16, 2009 1:05 PM | Report abuse

Jay – I think you are falling into the trap of assuming that exclaiming “adult interests before children’s interests!” will send anyone who really cares about education into retreat. It may not be your intent, but that phrase had been used too much to try to cut conversation and make accusations – like shouting “Communist!” It this case, retreating could prevent oversight of adults, who through their deceit, could be harming children’s interests greatly.

I also disagree strenuously about my supposed misstep. Of course it’s wrong for teachers (and most likely principals) to cheat. You’re making a relationship between adult cheating behavior and student learning that I didn’t make and I doubt the adults made. They may know all sorts of good things that are happening with their students that are unlikely to show up on standardized tests (which are all that count with this administration). They may know of issues with some of their students that can’t be discussed or acted on because it might imply having the wrong “mindset.”

The adults are trying to keep their jobs and think this is what they need to do. There’s no kissing off of students here. At this point it’s no longer even about students – it’s adults at the top making unrealistic demands on adults in the schools that result in bad adult behavior all around.

Posted by: efavorite | September 16, 2009 2:10 PM | Report abuse

Thank you Mr. Matthews for continuing the conversation and responding to the posts. I really appreciate your obvious concern for education and your desire to talk about the issues.

Just one point of clarification on my earlier post: I don't think the test scores matching grades are an issue or their learning. The administration has no idea what grades are given to students (they are all paper copies with no centralized administration or oversight). Further, the schools in question dramatically increased (20% points across the school) their scores suggesting that the motivation was not simply to match grades but either for a bonus and/or in a desire to make DCPS look better and prevent job losses at schools. I am not at all convinced that the cheating in this case was to cover up for students not being taught. Instead, the test results suggest that these kids made far more than adequate yearly progress (perhaps moving from below basic to proficient or basic to advanced in a single year).

Further, in terms of retesting, what is that going to mean for the students? Who knows when, if ever, they would get those scores back, and what would it mean? How many of those students and their families even know this is an issue let alone that it involves them individually? We don't even know all the schools involved, and the few schools mentioned we don't even know the grade level let alone the individual classroom. This testing scandal is completely removed from the children. ALso, they are children, this was a year and a half ago, which is ancient history to them anyway!

Lastly, if we do want to affect change, flashy test scores and press releases (the current focus of DCPS leadership) is not going to help students. Something, maybe like this, is needed to refocus our schools' leadership back on the children rather than individuals' national reputation or celebrity status.

Posted by: mfalcon | September 16, 2009 9:49 PM | Report abuse

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