The following was also posted on the National School Boards Assocation’s Center for Public Education blog, The Edifier.
Articles this past weekend by the Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC) and the Associated Press strongly suggest the answer is yes. AJC attempted to answer this question by analyzing state standardized test scores from all 50 states to identify districts and schools that had statistically unusual fluctuations in their year to year test scores which is an indicator that cheating may be taking place. Although the unusual fluctuations do not prove there was cheating it does point to the strong possibility that cheating is in fact taking place. As a matter of fact, the newspaper used a similar methodology in 2009 which helped uncovered extensive cheating in Atlanta public schools.
But is cheating as prevalent across our public schools as the articles strong imply? The answer is quite simply no. When you actually look at the data from AJC you see that about 200 out of the nearly 15,000 school districts (which includes charter school districts and other special districts) analyzed by AJC had suspicious test scores like those found in Atlanta. This represents just 1.3 percent of all school districts nationwide. Keep in mind, even within these districts most schools showed no signs of cheating.
In fact, when AJC calculated how many individual students were likely to be directly impacted by cheating, just a tiny fraction (less than 1 percent) of the 13 million students examined were enrolled in the grade level within the schools where cheating likely took place.
Of course any cheating at the school or district level is not acceptable but the data does show that the AJC’s assertion that the results “…suggest a broad betrayal of schoolchildren across the nation” is not only overblown but outright wrong. In fact their data shows that cheating is limited to a small proportion of districts and even smaller proportion of students nationwide. So parents and the general public should be confident that teachers and administrators in close to 99 percent of districts act in an ethical and professional manner.
Does this mean cheating shouldn’t be a concern? Of course not. More work needs to be done by state and district leaders to ensure that the integrity of the test results are not compromised and that struggling students are appropriately identified so they receive the support and resources they need to actually improve their performance. In the case of the districts identified in the article they need to look further into the data to determine if in fact cheating is going on in their schools. Or whether the fluctuations are due to highly effective instruction in high scoring grades and ineffective instruction in following low scoring grades. Either way, districts need to know why there are such fluctuations so they can either eliminate any cheating or focus on improving instruction in grades where test scores drop.
While statistically large fluctuations in scores indicates a strong possibility of cheating, as anyone who has seen the movie Stand and Deliver, great teaching can lead to unpredictable increases in student achievement. And those teachers should not be considered guilty until proven innocent. But it also doesn’t mean that such indicators of cheating should be ignored either. Either way, the actual data shows that cheating is limited to a small number of schools nationwide contrary to what the AJC and Associated Press articles imply.