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When Teachers Cheat

By E. J. Dionne Jr.

Tuesday, December 14, 1999; Page A39

In the midst of phone calls from radio and television networks in Britain, Germany, Australia and Canada, the man who uncovered the New York City school cheating scandal took time out to reflect on why it has caused such a stir.

"It's like a man bites dog story," Ed Stancik, the special investigator for New York City's schools, said in an interview. "The teachers are cheating on the kids' tests."

Man bites dog indeed. What Stancik uncovered--with help, it must be said up front, from some honest teachers--are cases where teachers changed kids' answers on standardized tests from wrong to right.

Stancik, a former rackets investigator in the Manhattan District Attorney's office, fingered 43 teachers, two principals and two other school workers in 32 schools for participating in some form of cheating.

Why would teachers do such a thing? Welcome to the world of "high stakes testing." The new wave in education reform--and it's the right wave--is for "accountability" in schools and "high standards." There are only so many ways you can ensure accountability and standards. One of the main ones is testing.

Careers, pay and the amount of money states confer on schools hang increasingly on improving test results. Now we learn some teachers and principals don't seem to care how they do it.

That fact was a powerful tipoff for Stancik's investigators. "We started to look for stories based on miracle turnarounds," he said. There was, for example, The Miracle at P.S. 234, where the proportion of third-graders reading at grade level skyrocketed from 29 percent to 51 percent.

It was no miracle. There was cheating. "What you see in some of the miracle schools," Stancik says of his investigation of four years of testing, "are kids who were in the 10th percentile one year, in the 90th percentile the next year, then switched schools, were back in the 10th percentile--and then dropped out."

In a campaign in which presidential candidates will talk incessantly about school reform, the New York City experience is an injection of painful reality. New York isn't the only place where school administrators have cooked the testing books. In October the school board in Austin, Tex., avoided a criminal trial on charges of tampering with achievement test scores by reforming the system. Connecticut and Kentucky have also suffered through cheating and the manipulation of scores.

The worst response to all this would be to throw out testing. "The anti-test, anti-accountability people will say: Look what happens when you put stakes on these tests and put pressure on educators around them," says Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, a group that pushes for better teaching. If used properly and--here's the important part--in conjunction with real school reform, she says, testing can help identify failing schools and lead to help for students who need it.

The New York scandal, says Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers, "will be used not just by foes of public schools who say public schools are hopeless but also by foes of higher standards." She wants to preserve standards, but proclaiming them isn't enough. "You can't assume that just by having the standard in place, kids are automatically going to meet it."

The United Federation of Teachers, the New York City AFT affiliate, had a rather more ambiguous response. While denouncing cheating, UFT President Randi Weingarten said her union was sponsoring its own investigation. She questioned whether Stancik painted with too much of a "broad brush" in suggesting that "cheating is rampant and widespread." But even she acknowledged that the cases Stancik pointed to were "egregious."

As with almost everything in New York City schools, there are political overtones. They have to do with feuding between Mayor Rudy Giuliani and school Chancellor Rudy Crew and the timing of Stancik's report.

That's for the New York pols to sort out. For the rest of us, Stancik has taught some lessons. School administrators and teachers who care more about their careers than their kids don't belong in the schools. Testing won't do any good if there's cheating, and it's a meaningless tool unless it's used as a road map to improving teaching and learning.

And that won't happen unless candidates--for president and for local school boards--talk about what improvements they'll make after the test results are in. High-stakes testing without high-stakes reform will simply show what low stakes we place on children.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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