The sentencing of several educators in Atlanta has stirred conversation about honesty in the field. This conversation has been evolving. After an initial public condemnation of those involved, a more sympathetic tone has emerged. Many have claimed the punishment of these educators to be excessive. A few have pointed to racial bias. Critics have lamented the relative leniency reserved for many corporate executives convicted of similar fraud. Such comparisons might be debatable, but the public is left with much to ponder. How widespread is cheating among educators? What drives them to cheat? Perhaps of greatest intrigue, how should we define cheating in some cases?
Knowing how many educators cheat and to what extent they cheat is next to impossible. Assuming the majority does so without getting caught, one could take the number of cases under investigation nationwide and increase that by several factors. Testing practices have come under increasing scrutiny, forcing systematic cheaters to either give up or become more sophisticated. The effort involved might lead to diminishing returns. Patterns of score regression following increased scrutiny might indicate who may have been cheating, but it isn’t solid evidence. Cheating on tests isn’t the only manifestation of dishonesty. Catching perpetrators in other areas could be much more difficult.
The degree of racketeering in the Atlanta case was profound. Those involved can’t be excused. A system existed for forging test answers and concealing evidence. Allegedly, administrators pressured teachers into changing scores and remaining silent. This system operated for years, resulting in thousands of students advancing with inflated scores. This wasn’t just an indiscretion. It was a crime.
In Atlanta, the urgency was about earning federal money for underfunded schools through consistently high test scores. In other cheating scandals, motivations have included maintaining adequate yearly progress (AYP) to avoid corrective action under NCLB. Entire schools have been complicit, as have individual teachers looking to protect their evaluation ratings. The repeated theme is educators have felt pressured to improve their students’ performance on high-stakes tests. Apparently, many have felt success was unlikely enough that cheating was necessary.
Critics have assailed NCLB for the poor reasoning behind AYP. Can schools expect students to improve every year? Wouldn’t a norm for each cohort of students make more sense? As a new breed of standardized tests has emerged, an opposition movement has focused on problems with assigning too much value to specific assessments. Vocal critics have attacked the design and content of the tests. They scorn the issues associated with tying teacher ratings to student performance, a practice unfair to teachers who work with severely disadvantaged students. The current opt-out movement is the most visible opposition to an educational initiative in years, attacking standardized testing on all fronts.
For all the resistance, testing pressure remains the norm. Stories abound about teachers quitting because of testing culture. The pressures hit the poorest performing schools hardest. Teachers in these schools hear messages of doom from administrators. These administrators hear similar messages from their superiors. Unfortunately, those in positions of authority don’t always grasp the role of assessments. Even if they overreact to pressure, teachers still have to respond to the edicts of their ratings officers. With evaluations being increasingly tied to student performance, livelihoods are at stake. One would expect some staff to resort to drastic measures. By no means does this justify systematic cheating, but such a response shouldn’t be surprising.
Aside from professional self-preservation in response to fear, dishonesty in schools often seems to have some degree of altruism behind it. Wanting more money for a financially struggling school district is noble, even if the means of getting it are reprehensible. Many teachers might tamper with assessments to help specific students rather than to serve themselves or their schools. One could almost commend teachers for trying to reduce the stigma and pressure on students. What muddies the waters is the degree to which cheating is deliberate. In certain circumstances, defining cheating is tricky.
Nowhere are questions about honesty harder to answer than in special education. The fundamental precepts of special education create unorthodox testing conditions. Accommodations per IEPs throw scoring paradigms into disarray. On many math assessments, teachers can read items to students. Actually, all students can have this accommodation on certain tests in certain states. However, when students with IEPs can have it combined with small group or separate room testing, it becomes an open invitation for abuse. In some cases, math tests might be taken as group activities in which teachers read the tests aloud and testing partners talk students through each item. Occasionally, schools will show unusual spikes in math performance for all students, but especially for students with IEPs. Select students might score at the bottom in reading and at the top in math, which appears suspicious.
Other fuzzy circumstances exist. Special needs students sometime dictate open-ended responses to proctors. Doing so might force teachers to interpret some of what students dictate. They might unintentionally (or very intentionally) inject their own phrasing into student responses. Even if a staff member just transcribes for a student, interpretation is possible. Meaning can be lost (or reshaped) in the transfer. The same can happen if a staff member marks an answer sheet for a student, an allowable accommodation for many.
Unless fabrication is deliberate, a leap is necessary to call these accommodations cheating. They do create gradients of honesty, though. Often, test performance gaps between reading and mathematics for students with IEPs are authentic and attributable to strengths and weaknesses. When these gaps appear on standardized tests and not on tests used to establish present levels, one has to wonder if the accommodations allowed created an artificial bump. Is this cheating? It isn’t cheating in a systematic, fraudulent sense. It isn’t cheating if students are getting accommodations they authentically need for the sake of equity. To call the use of accommodations cheating could lead to calling the whole of special education cheating. Without a doubt, certain accommodations blur what counts as authentic student performance while allowing massive opportunity for biased interpretation or blatant tampering.
Whether or not they’re administered honestly, testing accommodations have repercussions. When the accommodations create glaring performance gaps, they could raise the attention of test monitors who may wish to scrutinize schools. Monitors and even administrators might not notice or care though, especially if scores for these students aren’t counted with the rest of the population, which is sometimes the case. Other issues persist regardless. Inflated standardized test scores create aberrations in present level data for IEPs. Trends among special education students in a district could become unreliable and unusable for planning purposes. Parents might question a child’s performance. If all other scores show the child performs several grade levels below average, how did the child score proficient on one math test? If the child can do this, why does he or she receive special education?
Flexible honesty applies elsewhere in special education. Teachers might alter performance data for the sake of reporting progress. This is done to ward off mediation or due process claims and is similar to responses to standardized test pressure. Some teachers might fabricate ongoing assessment scores for the sake of saving time. Doing this can be tempting if scores for students with stagnant performance are easy to predict. Special education teachers might mislead parents about performance for the sake of placating them. This can be as subtle as overstating achievement or downplaying disruptive behavior. School staff might agree with a parent about student potential even when each staff member knows the parent’s expectations are unrealistic. Teachers innocently praise students for the sake of doing so, sometimes without an honest sentiment. Dishonesty has a range.
Educator honesty is tested by conflicts regarding testing pressure, but also by some of the basic tenets of special education. Wholesale fraud is damnable, but succumbing to the pressures educators face is understandable. Special education complicates the situation, as it usually does.