Teacher Cheating Scandals Spur Obama Administration Call To Address Growing Problem

The first time Bob Wilson, a former DeKalb County, Georgia, district attorney, interviewed educators suspected of cheating on exams in 56 Atlanta schools, he got nothing. The second time, armed with information, lawyers and Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents, the teachers began to crack.

By last summer, the investigation by Wilson and his colleagues gave Atlanta the notoriety of hosting the largest recorded teacher cheating scandal in American history.

The lesson? "Reinterview," Wilson told testing experts gathered this week in a small Washington, D.C., hotel conference room to help the government create recommendations to quash teacher cheating. "Keep going back. Good investigators act like they're dumb as a brick."

Steve Ferrara, testing chief at the education company Pearson, said malfeasance was obvious to the naked eye when he went to observe a school in Maryland. The teacher of the year was about to administer a third-grade exam. Immediately before the test, Ferrara recalled, the teacher said, "I want you to listen carefully to a story. It'll help you relax before the test."

The teacher read from a rocking chair and the kids, rapt with attention, eased into the test. Minutes later, Ferrara looked at the exam and realized the teacher's story reflected the content. "There wasn't much investigation that I had to do as a follow-up," Ferrara said. "It indicates how delicate things can become when you detect cheating."

Wilson and Ferrara were just two testing experts who spoke at a Tuesday symposium on "data integrity" -- the validity of information gleaned from academic exams -- hosted by the U.S. Education Department's National Center on Education Statistics. The experts convened as part of the Obama administration's effort to compile best practices on preventing and detecting "testing irregularities," a term that refers to educators cheating on standardized tests.

The topic of teacher cheating exploded over the last year, with a USA Today investigation that found that several classrooms in Washington, D.C., had a high rate of answers erased from wrong to right, often a sign of teacher test-tampering. Around the same time, 148 Atlanta teachers and principals were accused of fudging correct answers on their students' tests to make themselves look better.

Some cite the scandals in criticizing education policies that rely heavily on high-stakes tests, such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. But the experts at the symposium said that while cheating is a logical byproduct of such laws, working vigilantly to curb and punish cheating will help keep the data viable.

The search for cheating standards began with Washington, D.C., schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson last summer, according to Joanne Weiss, chief of staff at the U.S. Education Department.

"As D.C. was pursuing its investigations into allegations of cheating, there was virtually no library of best practices to rely on, and no standards of testing integrity for them to rely on," Weiss said. "So they were really flying blind. She asked whether the department would step in to help states and districts."

Henderson herself addressed the group, calling for national standards.

"I found a dizzying world of data analysis, non-standardized approaches, and unreliable outcomes ... most of which put districts in a defensive posture," Henderson said. She said she was stuck answering reporters asking whether the district could do more. "It was easy sport for the press to play the what more could we have done game," she said. (D.C. is still under investigation.)

As part of the cheat-curbing efforts, the administration will compile presentations at the symposium. Additionally, the National Council on Measurement in Education is helping develop recommendations for states and districts.

Recommendations, currently in draft form, were provided to The Huffington Post and will soon be available for public comment online. According to the draft, the recommendations will suggest that states develop cheating policies and assign personnel to executing these policies. The draft recommendations stress training and making the consequences of cheating clear. The guidelines also suggest that states vigilantly collect data from test sites, including photos of answers written on kids' arms or, on digital exams, screenshots of student activity. Whistleblowers should be protected, and alleged cheaters should be entitled to due process, the document suggests.