Anecdotal reports of cheating by teachers and administrators -- mostly around high-stakes standardized tests -- have been common in recent years, with numerous school districts caught up in scandals. But hard data about the extent of teacher cheating has been hard to come by. Well now, thanks to a major investigative effort by USA Today, we have a better empirical foundation for analyzing the problem of cheating by teachers and administrators.
USA Today investigated the test results of million of students in six states at some 24,000 public schools, as well as the District of Columbia.
The newspaper identified 1,610 examples of anomalies in which public school classes — a school's entire fifth grade, for example — boasted what analysts regard as statistically rare, perhaps suspect, gains on state tests.
Such anomalies surfaced in Washington, D.C., and each of the states — Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Michigan and Ohio — where USA TODAY analyzed test scores. For each state, the newspaper obtained three to seven years' worth of scores. There were another 317 examples of equally large, year-to-year declines in an entire grade's scores.
USA TODAY used a methodology widely recognized by mathematicians, psychometricians and testing companies. It compared year-to-year changes in test scores and singled out grades within schools for which gains were 3 standard deviations or more from the average statewide gain on that test. In layman's language, that means the students in that grade showed greater improvement than 99.9% of their classmates statewide.
The higher the standard deviation, the rarer that improvement is. In dozens of cases, USA TODAY found 5, 6 and even 7 standard deviations, making those gains even more exceptional.
A number of educators are quoted in the article saying that the data findings are not conclusive proof of cheating and that schools can make big gains in achievement. But other experts side with USA Today in assuming cheating:
Thomas Haladyna, a professor emeritus at Arizona State University, says test gains of 3 standard deviations or more for an entire grade are "so incredible that you have to ask yourself, 'How can this be real?' " Haladyna says such a spike in scores would be like finding "a weight-loss clinic where you lose 100 pounds a day."
The overall picture painted in the long article and accompanying graphs is pretty devastating, especially in light of recent revelations of cheating by teachers and administrators in Altanta, where 58 schools have been implicated in a test cheating scandal.
The USA Today article points out the problems in accountability that lead so much cheating to occur and go unpunished. Part of the problem is the big expense involved in uncovering cheating by teachers and administrators and proving wrongdoing.
What the article doesn't do is make an obvious point: High-stakes testing regimes create huge incentives to cheat and we should think about addressing this underlying problem. Moreover, new laws that link that teacher compensation to student performance will create even stronger incentives. If you teacher cheating is bad now, just wait to all these merit pay proposals kick in.
My point is not to weigh in on the educational benefits of standardized tests or merit pay, but rather to underscore the serious unintended consequences of these proposals when it comes to the integrity of teachers and administrators. In turn, of course, cheating scandals involving educational leaders can only make students more cynical and fan the cheating epidemic among young people.
Today's USA Today article is the first of a multi-part series. Let's hope the paper tackles the thorny implications of its findings.