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The Nation

One Poor Test Result: Cheating Teachers

May 21, 2004|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

One cheater whispered answers in students' ears as they took the exam. Another photocopied test booklets so students would know vocabulary words in advance. Another erased score sheets marked with the wrong answers and substituted correct ones.

None of these violations involving California's standardized tests were committed by devious students: These sneaky offenders were teachers.

Since a statewide testing program began five years ago, more than 200 California teachers have been investigated for allegedly helping students on state exams, and at least 75 of those cases have been proved, according to documents obtained by The Times.

Most cases have led to reprimands and warnings that future scores will be monitored, but a few teachers have been fired or have resigned, say school administrators and union officials.

Some educators say teacher cheating comes as no surprise, given increased anxiety surrounding state tests and the federal use of them under the No Child Left Behind law.

While students may want to do well on those tests to please parents or avoid remedial classes, their regular report cards are more important. But principals pressure teachers to work on raising scores not just for bragging rights. The staff of a school with consistently bad results can be reassigned and federal funding can be withheld.

"Some people feel that they need to boost test scores by hook or by crook," said Larry Ward of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a watchdog group that has criticized many standardized tests. "The more pressure, the more some people take the unethical option."

Nearly 2,500 pages of documents from a Public Records Act request detail cases of teachers allowing extra time, erasing and changing score sheets, reading answers and dropping hints during tests.

Some records include detailed investigations but omit the teachers' names and possible punishment. Others identify only the district and campus. Some cases were blatant, while others were found to be a result of confusion over testing rules.

According to state documents, incidents in the last five years include the following:

* In the San Joaquin Valley's Merced County, a third-grade Planada School District teacher gave hints to answers and left a poster on a wall that also provided clues.

* In the Inland Empire, a Rialto Unified School District third-grade teacher admitted telling students: "You missed a few answers; you need to go back and find the ones you missed." A student reported that the teacher looked over pupils' shoulders and told them how many questions were wrong.

* Near the Mexican border, in the El Centro Elementary School District, a principal asked a student why he had erased so many answers. The student responded that the teacher had told him to "fix them."

* In El Monte, a Mountain View School District eighth-grade teacher admitted using the board to demonstrate a math problem and saying, "This is a silly answer. If you marked this one, erase it and pick another." Records stated that the teacher "said she was very sorry and wept during the interview."

* In the Ontario-Montclair School District, a student told investigators that a teacher read 10 math answers. One student said he handed his test booklet to that teacher and then went back to change five answers after the teacher said, "Why don't you try again?"

* Near Salinas, a Hollister School District teacher admitted changing about 15 answers.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, testing official Esther Wong said her office investigated three to four potential teacher cheating cases a year. Most cases were cleared after inquiries showed that "there were just as many erasures from wrong to right as right to wrong."

Several years ago at L.A. Unified's Banning High School in Wilmington, one teacher resigned and a dozen were disciplined after they showed exam copies to students before testing.

Statewide, most testing "irregularities" are detected by a computer analysis flagging classes with unusually high numbers of erased answers. Investigations can also start with tips from parents, students or staff.

"People are paying more attention to it in local districts," Bill Padia, director of policy and evaluation for the state Department of Education, said of potential cheating by teachers.

California allows districts to determine punishments, and most districts, citing privacy, do not disclose those decisions.

"I'm sure there are some districts who don't take it as seriously as others, but we don't get involved," said Les Axelrod of the state Education Department.

Beverly Tucker, California Teachers Assn. chief counsel for 16 years, said the number of teachers her office defended against allegations of cheating had risen. She could recall one or two cases stemming from the decade before the current testing began. Since 1999, she estimated, the union has defended more than 100.

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