Cheating on standardized tests has taken place in at least thirty states and the District of Columbia over the past four academic years.
Last year, a scandal rocked the 48,000-student Atlanta school system when a state probe revealed widespread, systematic cheating in nearly half of Atlanta’s 100 public schools as far back as 2001.
Last summer it was the prestigious Stuyvesant High School in New York that was caught up in a cheating controversy on the Regents exams.
But the furor that has shaken up the 64,000-student school district in El Paso,Texas, is far, far worse: administrators stand accused of keeping low-performing students out of classrooms altogether by improperly holding some back in ninth grade, accelerating others into eleventh grade and “disappearing” others to prevent them from showing up at school on test day.
On October 5, a federal judge sentenced Lorenzo Garcia, the former superintendent of El Paso Independent School District, to more than three years in prison for orchestrating a conspiracy to improve the district’s high-stakes tests scores by removing low-performing students from classrooms.
How exactly did this work? From The New York Times:
Federal prosecutors charged Mr. Garcia, 57, with devising an elaborate program to inflate test scores to improve the performance of struggling schools under the federal No Child Left Behind Act and to allow him to collect annual bonuses for meeting district goals.
The scheme, elements of which were carried out for most of Mr. Garcia’s nearly six-year tenure, centered on a state-mandated test taken by sophomores. Known as the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, it measures performance in reading, mathematics and other subjects. The scheme’s objective was to keep low-performing students out of the classroom so they would not take the test and drag scores down, according to prosecutors, former principals and school advocates.
Students identified as low-performing were transferred to charter schools, discouraged from enrolling in school or were visited at home by truant officers and told not to go to school on the test day. For some, credits were deleted from transcripts or grades were changed from passing to failing or from failing to passing so they could be reclassified as freshmen or juniors.
Other students, who had been required to repeat tenth grade, suddenly found themselves propelled into eleventh grade: they were able to earn a semester’s worth of credit for a few hours of computer work. Still other students who transferred to the district from Mexico and should have entered the tenth grade were instead put in the ninth grade, to prevent them from taking the test.
Mr. Garcia could not have carried out this malicious plot alone; he had the help of many administrators, who knew what was going on. They all deserve to receive the harshest possible penalties for playing with the lives of children and certainly destroying many of them.
Just check out these numbers. Again, from The New York Times:
State education data showed that 381 students were enrolled as freshmen at Bowie in the fall of 2007. The following fall, the sophomore class was 170 students. Dozens of the missing students had “disappeared” through Mr. Garcia’s program, said Eliot Shapleigh, a lawyer and former state senator who began his own investigation into testing misconduct and was credited with bringing the case to light. Mr. Shapleigh said he believed that hundreds of students were affected and that district leaders had failed to do enough to locate and help them.
This is a crime of a far greater magnitude than any of the other cheating scandals that have come to light over the past few years. In those cases, teachers fixed student papers or helped their charges in other ways. In El Paso, the students just vanished.
To see Lorenzo Garcia boasting of his great ability to raise test scores, while knowing exactly how he was achieving this “success” makes my blood boil. How dare he abuse the trust that these parents and children put in him?
The teaching profession is full of passionate, dedicated people who devote hours and hours of overtime to helping their young charges. But it only takes one Lorenzo Garcia to give all of us a bad name.
I also blame No Child Left Behind (NCLB), with its relentless push to raise the scores on standardized tests. As long as test scores are used to make decisions on rewards or punishments, including for schools or educators, a small percentage of people will be willing to bend the rules — or break them.
Although Mr. Garcia is the first superintendent in the country to be charged with manipulating data related to NCLB for financial gain, there are plenty of others who have felt the same pressure.
Indeed, the rising incidence of systematic cheating on tests by teachers and principals in so many states has highlighted a split between those arguing for improved test management and security and those who ask if it’s better to scrap high-stakes testing altogether.
The only solution is to move away from a total reliance on these tests as a way of measuring student performance and start using multiple measures, especially assessments that don’t involve filling in bubbles.
Without that, I fear the cheating will continue.
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