The headline in a recent Newsday article was "36 confirmed cases of LI schools cheating on state tests over past decade." According to the report, "Three dozen complaints of cheating on state tests in Long Island schools have been substantiated by investigators during the past decade."
It seems that between academic year 2002-03 and 2011-12 the New York State Department of Education investigated 60 complaints and substantiated 36, or 60%.
Long Island had more than 446,400 public students enrolled in 2012-13. Over the course of 10 years that is almost 5 million students. Most students take multiple standardized tests; let's guesstimate four each. Are we looking at thirty-six confirmed irregularities out of 20 million student tests? That is an absurdly low number.
Maybe the headline should have been, over the last decade Long Island teachers did not cheat over 20 million times or 99.99999% of the time.
The number of documented cheating incidents in other regional school districts were similarly extraordinarily low. In New York City, with a public school population of a whopping 1.1 million children and possibly 40 million opportunities to cheat, there were 94 verified cases over the course of ten years. The six Hudson Valley counties north of New York City had thirty-one verified cases for its 338,000 students out of 13.5 million possible cheating opportunities.
Statewide there were only 322 verified incidents of testing irregularities during the course of ten years. State Education Commissioner John B. King conceded. "The overwhelming majority of educators in New York State give tests honestly and fairly." So why is Newsday making war on teachers and schools?
For me, the other issue with both the Newsday article and the state investigations is how many of these verified incidents actually constituted cheating. The answer is hardly any.
Were Roosevelt High School administrators cheating in 2010-11 when school officials failed to keep exams in a secure lockbox or was it just a careless mistake? Was East Rockaway High School cheating in 2007-08 when a teacher photocopied additional exams because the school was delivered too few or was the teacher actually trying to be responsible? Did a middle school teacher in Malverne intend to cheat when he or she saw an exam, perhaps inadvertently, too early?
In the Newsday article, Bob Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, is quoted as calling the verified complaints on Long Island the "tip of the iceberg." But Schaeffer was not referring to irregularities committed by Long Island or New York State teachers and school officials. The "iceberg" is the impact of high-stakes testing on students and school curriculum. According to its website, FairTest "works to end the misuses and flaws of standardized testing and to ensure that evaluation of students, teachers and schools is fair, open, valid and educationally beneficial."
Schaeffer and FairTest argue that high-stakes standardized tests put pressure on districts and teachers to " boost scores without improving learning." While this can include cheating, the bigger problem is "narrow teaching to the test and pushing out low-scoring students." The real cheating of students and the public is the misuse of the tests.
A small, but significant problem with the Newsday article is the way it played sleight-of-hand with Schaeffer's words. According to the article, Schaeffer said that within the past four academic years "cheating cases have been confirmed in 38 states and the District of Columbia." But he is quoted in the article and on the FairTest website as saying "There is a widespread pattern of test manipulation," which is not quite the same as accusing people of cheating.
Justified accusations of changing student answers on standardized tests in Atlanta, Georgia has led to a national witch hunt and all teachers are now considered suspect of cheating. But the real cheaters are the private companies making mega-bucks selling scripted learning programs, test review books, and standardized tests to the schools. Shame on Newsday for defaming teachers while letting the real perpetrators walk away scot-free and with full pockets.