Blog: The Educated Reporter

New York Needs Money to Catch Test Cheaters

A story in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend caught my eye. Education officials in New York are asking for state funds to examine student score sheets for evidence of cheating.

The story is notable for several reasons. First, it’s an example of yet another state where — surprisingly — this type of post-test monitoring isn’t already in place. Second, the story points out that of the $2.1 million the officials say is needed, $1 million would be used to look for what’s known as erasure anomalies — evidence that that an incorrect answer was erased and the correct answer put in its place.

Last year, I interviewed an Atlanta Public Schools spokesman in the wake of the cheating scandal that had swept through his district.

I asked him about a report that had found significant evidence of erasure anomalies. The spokesman told me that nearly 80 percent of Atlanta’s K-12 students qualified for free and reduced-price meals, and that many of them “are not confident test takers.” Atlanta’s district policy had been to tell students if they had time at the end of an exam, to go back and reconsider questions where they weren’t sure of the answer.

“Now we find out that one of our testing strategies might send up a flag as a potential cheat situation,” he said. “So, we’ll have to find another way.”

Let’s be clear about Atlanta: Erasure anomalies aside, there is plenty of compelling evidence that there was a coordinated and widespread effort to cheat. The fine work of Heather Vogell at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution is rife with depressing details of outright malfeasance by public school teachers, principals and even area superintendents.

That brings me back to the Wall Street Journal’s story. In it, “officials stressed that they believe 99 percent of teachers are honest, but they said preventing teachers from scoring their own students’ tests would take away the temptation to beef up scores.”

I’m as a big a fan as anyone of optimism. But it’s not enough for New York education officials to “believe” that cheating is confined to 1 percent of their teachers. Additionally, if there’s a lesson from Atlanta — or the cheating scandals in Texas, Baltimore, New Jersey and elsewhere  — it’s that the cheating problem isn’t confined to students peeking over each other’s shoulders, or teachers changing answer sheets. The stakes are just as high, and the incentive to cheat potentially just as great, for principals and central office administrators, as well.