It was Christmas Eve, 1986, a time when most school officials were easing into the holiday vacation. But hidden away in a tiny cubicle at state Department of Education headquarters in Sacramento, Linda Pursell, a 19-year veteran of the Los Angeles Unified School District staff, was methodically going through pile after pile of peach- and green-colored California Assessment Program test answer booklets.
Only weeks before, the district had been alerted by state officials that computers grading the tests had kicked out the names of 18 of its elementary schools with unusually high numbers of erasures on the multiple choice answers, an indicator that cheating may have taken place.
Pursell's job was to see if the erasures had been made to change wrong answers to right, and whether the changes were in handwriting other than the student's.
After hours of painstaking study, a pattern emerged and she suddenly "felt almost physically ill." In a phone conversation with her bosses in Los Angeles, the head of the district's testing unit related her findings:
"They really did it," she told them.
And so began a highly unusual investigation into who "they" were.
Who changed hundreds of answers on the tests? Teachers anxious to please principals or parents? Principals or administrators climbing the professional ladder and under pressure from the district? School aides and clerical workers who helped teachers "clean up" messy test booklets? Proctors--sometimes parents or other teachers--who provided security during the exams?
Under fire at last week's school board meeting, Supt. Leonard Britton admitted that after investigating what is believed to be the district's most widespread cheating scandal, only one thing seemed clear. "It was someone other than the students," Britton said.
In all, at least 50 elementary schools statewide, including 24 in Los Angeles, have been accused of cheating on third- and sixth-grade California Assessment Program (CAP) tests over the last three years, with scores at some highly questionable schools invalidated. But the Los Angeles district's investigation of tests taken during the 1985-86 academic year was abandoned without confronting any suspects.
Situation Too Murky
The district cited legal and ethical reasons for throwing in the towel on the 1985-86 incidents--concluding that the situation was too murky to hold specific individuals responsible for such widespread tampering. The district said it will continue to investigate, with help from a school police officer, the six schools thought to have cheated on the 1986-87 tests and one suspected case in 1987-1988.
But in the wake of the cheating probe, district officials have found themselves--not the cheaters--at the center of controversy. Critics charge that high-level administrators not only set the scene for cheating to occur by placing heavy pressure on schools to get high scores, but then failed to provide fail-safe testing security, and finally, curtailed the 1986-87 test investigation without even directly questioning those most likely to have done the cheating.
And in another ironic twist, the very system the state and district developed to link erasure marks on tests to cheating is now under fire. San Francisco Unified School District officials, saying that they did not want to become a "lynch mob," have fired off a 20-page letter to the state Department of Education, insisting that their questionable test scores be validated because the detection process was faulty.
Meanwhile, the fact that the San Bernardino City Unified School District successfully investigated cheating turned up by the state has led some critics to question why Los Angeles could not have done the same.
Based on interviews with dozens of teachers, principals and administrators who handled the tests, a picture begins to emerge of how and why the cheating may have occurred at Los Angeles district schools in 1985-86--and how it might have been avoided.
At the top of the list of concerns is pressure from the office of state Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig as well as from the district office to do well on the CAP tests--mathematics, reading and writing exams that are given annually to third-, sixth-, eighth- and 12th-graders in public schools statewide. There are no individual student scores, but school scores are publicized and used widely by parents to judge the quality of their children's education. Even real estate agents cite high test scores in sales pitches to prospective home buyers.
Two kinds of cheating appeared to have taken place--wholesale changes where answers for nearly an entire class were altered to dramatically boost test scores, and scattered instances in which someone changed only a few answers.
One retired Los Angeles district teacher said she saw teachers change answers in a CAP test in 1985.