| March 29, 2012

Are Oklahoma school districts cheating?

According to a March 25 report in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (‘Cheating our children: Suspicious school test scores across the nation’), “suspicious test scores in roughly 200 school districts resemble those that entangled Atlanta in the biggest cheating scandal in American history, an investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows."

The newspaper analyzed test results for 69,000 public schools and found high concentrations of suspect math or reading scores in school systems from coast to coast. The findings represent an unprecedented examination of the integrity of school testing.

The analysis doesn’t prove cheating. But it reveals that test scores in hundreds of cities followed a pattern that, in Atlanta, indicated cheating in multiple schools.

Says U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan: “These findings are concerning.”

According to the report—which has also attracted the attention of NPR (‘Evidence Builds Of Schools Cheating To Boost Students' Test Scores’) and The Atlantic (‘Investigation Finds Suspicious Achievement in Schools Across the Nation’)—“196 of the nation’s 3,125 largest school districts had enough suspect tests that the odds of the results occurring by chance alone were worse than one in 1,000.” These districts, in the AJC’s analysis, “appear to most resemble the pattern of test score jumps and drops found in the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal.” The Oklahoma districts on this list are Choctaw/Nicoma Park, Owasso, Stillwater, and Tulsa.

In addition, the AJC listed 10 Oklahoma districts which “do not match the Atlanta pattern as closely” but which “certainly deserve further examination.” These are: Bartlesville, Broken Arrow, Edmond, Muskogee, Mustang, Norman, Oklahoma City, Sand Springs, Western Heights, and Yukon.

“Some school leaders accused of cheating have attributed steep gains to exemplary teaching,” the AJC notes. “But experts said instruction isn’t likely to move scores to the degree seen in the AJC’s analysis.” Through teaching alone, said James Wollack, a University of Wisconsin-Madison expert in testing and cheating who reviewed the AJC’s work, “it’s going to be pretty tough to have that sort of an impact.”

“I can say with some confidence,” he said, “cheating is something you should be looking at.”

The AJC continues: “Statistical checks for extreme changes in scores are like medical tests, said Gary Phillips, a vice president and chief scientist for the large nonprofit American Institutes for Research, who advised the AJC on its methodology. ‘This is a broad screening,’ he said. ‘If you find something, you’re supposed to go to the doctor and follow up with a more detailed diagnostic process.’”

Many agree. The AJC reports that “a U.S. senator from Georgia and a national teacher union leader on Sunday called for investigations into possible cheating in school districts cited in an investigation into suspicious test scores by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“The indications of the report are troubling, to the point where these systems must follow up and see whether there is in fact impropriety,” said U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, a member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

If these districts fail to do so, Isakson said the governors of the states should intervene. And should they drop the ball, “there may be a federal interest ... I don’t think Congress could look the other way.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, one of the two major teachers’ unions, told the AJC that the findings suggest the need for more investigation in many school districts across the country.

“It should go to another level,” she said, such as systematic analysis of erasures on test papers and, if necessary, investigations by law enforcement officers—both of which helped prove widespread cheating in the Atlanta Public Schools.

“If the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s findings are valid, they certainly merit further inquiry, but we must also be cautious about painting with too broad a brush,” says Oklahoma state Superintendent Janet Barresi. “We will be looking closely at these findings, and consulting with state policy-makers and Oklahoma school administrators.”

Tulsa superintendent Keith Ballard, undisturbed by one-in-a-thousand odds, doesn’t think any diagnostic follow-up is necessary. “I am pleased with the growth that our students have shown,” he says, “and don’t see any validity in the story.” Move right along, folks, nothing to see here.

But Beth Johnson, a math teacher at Tulsa’s Hale High School, correctly points out that “if it doesn’t get fully investigated, then some people might leave thinking that it’s going on even if it wasn’t.”

She’s right. And if it is going on, it needs to stop. As the AJC reported, “The newspaper’s analysis suggests that tens of thousands of children may have been harmed by inflated scores that could have precluded tutoring or more drastic administrative actions.”

Over at The American Interest, Walter Russell Mead puts it well:

In the short run, the authorities should come down on the cheaters like a ton of bricks. Students need to see that cheaters don’t prosper. Longer term, the solution is to keep bringing education closer to the grass roots and to give parents more say in how and by whom their children are taught.

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