In 2008, teacher assistant Johanna Munoz helped her Orlando-area fourth-graders on the state achievement test.
According to investigative documents obtained by USA TODAY, Munoz erased wrong answers and whispered corrections while she was helping non-native English speakers with difficult words. She snapped her fingers in a code students understood to mean they should correct an answer.
While the teacher was out of the room, Munoz warned the students “not to tell anyone, not even your parents, what I did.” If they told, she warned, they “would fail fourth grade.”
This is high-stakes testing. The standardized tests required by the federal No Child Left Behind law have become one of the most important — and controversial — ways to measure a student’s progress, a teacher’s competence, a school’s success and a state’s commitment to education. That can be a heavy load for an assessment built on paper booklets and bubble sheets.
At Groveland Elementary in Groveland, Fla., where Munoz taught, at least one child told a parent about getting answers to the test, and the school began to investigate. Munoz pulled students out of class and again warned them not to tell. But one by one, the students confessed.
“You could almost see the relief in their face(s) as they let go of this burden,” says Groveland Principal Dale Delpit. One fourth-grader who initially defended his beloved teacher later blurted, “I lied!” in front of his classmates, tears streaming down his face, records show.
Munoz resigned after the school district concluded that she cheated and recommended that the school board fire her. She denies giving her students any answers and says she was never alone with themin the classroom.
“I have no clue why the kids said I helped them. I think one said it, then they all did,” says Munoz, 28, who was proctoring the test for the first time. She is now a day care worker.
Teachers cheat sometimes and so do principals, according to academic studies. Why it happens and how often — and the seriousness of efforts to stop it — are open to debate. Punishment varies from state to state, too. In an investigation of standardized testing in six states and the District of Columbia, USA TODAY found that an infraction such as casually coaching one student can carry nearly the same punishment as deliberately changing answers for a whole class.
The consequences can be drastic: Cheating can cost school districts thousands of dollars for makeup tests, set back the careers of gifted teachers and create confusion for schools and parents over a child’s academic progress.
In an Arizona State University survey published last year, more than 50% of teachers and other educators admitted to some kind of cheating on Arizona’s state tests. The authors of the online survey of more than 3,000 educators defined cheating broadly — from accidentally leaving multiplication tables on classroom walls to changing answers.
Only 1% of the Arizona educators admitted to what the study’s authors called the worst kinds of cheating: changing students’ answers on tests or telling academically weak students not to take the test.
Cheating investigations, however, are far rarer than these numbers suggest.
USA TODAY examined hundreds of “misadministration” and “irregularity” reports from state Departments of Education in Florida, California and Arizona. Such reports, which cover everything from missing test booklets to a teacher’s whispering answers to pupils, do not come to conclusions about whether there was cheating. That determination is usually left up to the school district or the state after an investigation.
Florida has one of the most rigorous reporting systems in the country. Yet in 2009, the state had only 112 reports of “compromised tests,” and just 12 of those reports indicated an allegation of intentional cheating by educators. In a state with 341,000 teachers and staff, that’s a minuscule fraction.
‘I kind of lost myself’
Teachers typically proctor their own students’ tests, especially in the early grades, to make students more comfortable. On test days, that means teachers must shut off the conditioned response to questions they get from students the rest of the year: “What do I do next?” or “What does this word mean?” When it comes to state tests, the only answer should be, “I can’t help you.”
Robert Hamann, a veteran social studies teacher, had been volunteering to help students at Scarlet Oaks Career Center in the Cincinnati area. So he already knew the senior taking the graduation-mandatory writing test.
Confused by the test instructions, the student asked for help. He told her to use the strategies they had discussed, and she began to string together a written answer. With each halting sentence, she looked to him for approval and he told her to write it down.
“In a moment of trying to help this kid, I kind of lost myself,” Hamann says of the 2005 incident. “This was what we had been doing in review. … This kid is in 12th grade trying to pass a ninth-grade test. This is her last shot. So, you’re explaining, explaining, explaining, and I think I gave her too much information.”
Hamann reported himself immediately. He got no breaks: His teaching license was suspended for three months; he now works as an administrator in another Cincinnati-area school.
“I didn’t think I was, at the time, violating any rules, but now … years later, it’s obvious I was,” he says.
Investigators acknowledge that without a confession like Hamann’s, some cheating is impossible to detect, because it often involves only a brief conversation between teacher and student.
It’s “a fairly simple operation. All one has to do is lean close and whisper,” says Christine DiDonna, coordinator and school counselor at Groveland Elementary in Florida. She has helped conduct several investigations, including the one involving Munoz, the former teacher.
To avoid expressly giving answers, some teachers have resorted to codes. At a California elementary school, the phrase “toilet paper” meant a student should subtract or “wipe away” a number in a math problem. In other states, a teacher would cross her arms if a student marked the wrong answer.
Kimberly Richter, a fifth-grade teacher at Schwab Elementary in Cincinnati, admitted to pointing at incorrect answers on the math test in 2008, but she said it was only to get the kids back on track. Many had quit paying attention 30 minutes into the two-hour-plus test. The school already was slated for closure, so better scores weren’t going to help.
“I knew it was wrong, but I didn’t think it would matter,” says Richter, who insists she never gave out correct answers. “I didn’t think it was going to blow up in my face like it did.”
Richter’s 25 students had to take a makeup test and her license was suspended for six months. She no longer teaches in Cincinnati Public Schools.
Sometimes cheating is orchestrated by administrators.
In Pontiac, Mich., a state investigation concluded the executive director of K-12 instruction for the district “assisted students in changing answers” while proctoring fourth-grade math and language tests at Crofoot Elementary in 2005.
The school was investigated in part because systematic cheating often carries its own hallmark: unusually high scores. In 2003, Crofoot’s fourth-graders tested at 39% proficient in math; in 2005, they had reached 100% proficiency. Over the same period, their English scores went from being 52% proficient to 89% proficient, according to Michigan Department of Education documents obtained by the Detroit Free Press, a partner of USA TODAY’s on this project.
The cheating on both the math and English-language tests was confirmed, the state said, by interviews with faculty members and by an analysis of erasures on test papers. On the English test, the erasure analysis showed 80% of the fourth-graders’ answers with erasures were changed from wrong to right; the average for the school was 35%.
The fourth-grade math and English tests were invalidated, and Pontiac school officials were ordered to notify parents. It is unclear whether Willa Allen, the executive director, was disciplined. Personnel discipline is a local decision, a state spokesman said, and the district did not inform the state of the outcome. Crofoot was closed in 2009. District officials would not say why.
Punishments are uneven
Cases of suspected test-tampering generally are investigated by the school district, which can levy punishments ranging from a letter of reprimand to termination. The state might also investigate and, occasionally, reach a different conclusion. In state cases, a teacher or principal can face fines and license revocation. The state may invalidate scores.
Suspicious test scores series
The Hechinger Report, USA TODAY and several other news outlets partnered to investigate the standardized test scores of millions of students in six states and the District of Columbia. The investigation identified 1,610 examples of statistically rare, perhaps suspect, gains on state tests.
Serious punishments are rare. And those handed down often are inconsistent, even for similar infractions.
A retired Arizona principal told Arizona State researchers that she caught a teacher erasing answers and reported it to the superintendent. The students were retested, the teacher was given a five-day suspension, and nothing more was mentioned of the incident.
By contrast, Joseph Eggleston, a fifth-grade teacher at Sevilla West School in west Phoenix, resigned after the district found he had created an answer key for state reading and math tests. Papers seized from his classroom in 2005 confirmed students’ reports that Eggleston had “erased and changed their answers,” according to a report by the Arizona State Board of Education.
Eggleston admitted what he had done, and the tests were invalidated immediately, but the investigation stretched on for years. When the Arizona Board of Education finally took action in 2010, his license was suspended retroactively for four years. He worked only briefly during that time, as a substitute teacher in spring 2006.
Audrey Amrein-Beardsley, a co-author of the Arizona State study, says differences in discipline may come down to local preferences and attitudes. “Some districts have stringent rules, and others say it’s up to the principal” to resolve.
Sometimes, the punishment seems remarkably severe for the infraction.
In 2007, Greg Parks was prepping his kids for the Florida state test, but in what he calls an accidental peek at the test, the middle-school math teacher noticed a troubling choice of words: Instead of asking kids about the volume of a can — the example he and the textbooks had been using — the test asked about the volume of a swimming pool.
“I was really worried they wouldn’t understand that the concept was the same. We’d never gone over that before,” says Parks, a 12-year Tampa-area teacher. The next day, he asked his advanced classes: “Did all of you understand that height is the same as depth?”
According to the state of Florida, that’s cheating because he taught students the answer to a test question. Although no tests were invalidated and Parks talked about the test only after the students were finished, the state ordered one year of probation and a fine as a result of the two-year investigation. The district gave him a five-day unpaid suspension.
“Saying depth equals height cost me about $4,000,” says Parks, who teaches in another district. “(The state) kept saying they wouldn’t be able to use that question. To this day, it makes no sense to me why that’s so wrong.”
Resentment among teachers
Educators cheat for different reasons — to boost scores, earn bonuses or keep enrollment up. But some cheat because the humiliation of not keeping up with peers is stronger than the risk of getting caught, says ASU’s Amrein-Beardsley.
Some districts post class scores publicly, rewarding top teachers and shaming the rest. Parents may use scores to request certain teachers, creating competition among teachers. In 10 states, teachers’ pay is tied to improved test scores; six other states are considering doing the same.
Whatever the motivation, when seasoned teachers make cheating seem acceptable, others may go along with it.
An Arizona teacher interviewed by the ASU team said that, as a student teacher, she was asked by her supervising teacher to erase and correct answers on a test. “I questioned it in my head, but I did not question her,” the anonymous teacher said. “I put this teacher on a pedestal. … Yet I was cheating.”
Many teachers interviewed by Amrein-Beardsley’s team justified cheating — especially the more pedestrian forms — as a way of getting back at a low-paying system rigged by impossible standards and unrealistic goals. Other teachers resented that their entire reputation could hinge on a child’s performance on a single day.
‘The pressure is really on’
Whatever the cause, a cheating scandal can divide a community.
Days before the 2008 state writing test, students at the rural Jefferson County Middle/High School in Florida were hurried to the cafeteria for a surprise practice test. When the test was given days later, many students found it easy because their practice writing prompts were nearly identical to those on the test, according to state documents.
Charges and countercharges flew as investigators tried to determine who had early access to the test and who blew the whistle. The community, near the Georgia border, was sharply split as the principal and assistant principal — brought in that year to improve scores and raise the school’s “F” grade — were accused of cheating.
Heated school board meetings and allegations of racism followed. The principal and vice principal accused of cheating were African-American, and the superintendent was white. The conflict drove many students to leave the district or choose home-schooling, says Superintendent Bill Brumfield, who was elected midway through the crisis.
“They said, ‘Why should we go where teachers have to cheat to get a grade?’ ” Brumfield says.
Ultimately, the state and the district reached different conclusions. The state invalidated the eighth- and 10th-grade writing scores but also found “insufficient evidence” to suspend the administrators’ licenses.
The school board, however, did not renew the administrators’ one-year contracts and refused to say why, Brumfield said. The principal now works for another Florida school district. Brumfield says the school is now a “D” and many students have come back. Most important, he says, it’s clear there are no shortcuts to improving test scores.
“People want to do good, but it’s also an ego thing,” Brumfield says. “The pressure is really on to succeed.”
Upton reported from Florida for USA TODAY; Ryman from Phoenix for The Arizona Republic; Amos from Ohio for The Cincinnati Enquirer.
Contributing: Jack Gillum of USA TODAY in Washington, D.C.
This story originally appeared in USA TODAY on March 10, 2011.