When Teachers Cheat

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Teaching seemed a natural, uncomplicated career choice for Stacey Moskowitz. "I like children," she says. "I enjoy watching them learn the things you need to do to succeed in life." In 1990, in her mid-20s, she began teaching third grade at Community Elementary School 90 in the Bronx, N.Y., where she learned how to succeed on the school's terms. She says the principal's underlings gave her a list of students along with the order "to make sure they passed" standardized reading exams. On the mornings of such exams, she was given a 2-in. by 3-in. cheat sheet. She would then have the students put their answers first on loose-leaf paper, so she could check them before they filled in the bubble sheets. "It was kind of like the Mafia," she says, explaining why she went along with the scheme. "Once you were in, you were in."

She found a way out, by going undercover and taking part in a 17-month probe that has exposed a shameful side of New York City's public school system. A special investigator, Edward Stancik, alleges that two principals and 50 other educators at 32 elementary and middle schools helped students cheat on standardized tests. Some hinted broadly at correct answers while students were taking the test; others used the scrap-paper method to avoid the multiple erasures that often indicate cheating; a few even changed answers after their students turned in the exams. The motive is not hard to discern. Teachers, particularly in the early grades, are increasingly being measured by the test scores of their students and can lose their jobs if student performance is too low and shows no sign of improvement.

New York City isn't the only place with bad apples. A schoolteacher in Atlanta was caught distributing advance copies of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, and another in northern Georgia was cited when seven of his special-ed students scored a perfect 600 on the language portion of the test. Dan Erling, a respected sixth-grade math instructor in Atlanta, left the profession in disgust over what he felt was rampant cheating. He estimates that as many as 15% of his incoming students had inflated test scores because of improper help from teachers, such as telling students to "sit next to the smart kid" during testing. Last year 40 cases of educator cheating were brought before Georgia's standards commission, compared with only three the previous year. The state of Texas is currently investigating 38 schools because of a high number of erasures on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. That crackdown follows the indictment last spring of an Austin school district for tampering with the results of the state test. And in Chicago, a high school English teacher was fired this year after he published six newly designed tests in an underground newspaper to protest high-stakes testing.

Educators who help their students cheat are a tiny minority. Teachers' union leaders disputed the cheating charges in New York City last week, claiming they were based on the unproved allegations of children and, in any event, do not constitute a "sweeping indictment of the entire system." Still, the temptation to cheat seems to be growing among teachers, who are being held accountable if their students don't measure up. "Anytime you have this kind of mounting pressure about getting children to a standard," says New York City's school chancellor, Rudy Crew, "it shouldn't come as any wonder that there are going to be people who will find a creative way of cheating." Crew argues that such incidents do not mean the tests should be abandoned, though others disagree. "The country has gone test crazy," says Robert Schaeffer, a director at FairTest, an organization that monitors standardized testing. "The more you ratchet up the pressure on these Trivial Pursuit types of exams, the more cheating you will see."

Yet blaming the exams seems misdirected, since such cheating represents a basic betrayal of a teacher's job--and responsibility to the student. A girl cited in Stancik's report scored only in the 12th percentile in reading in 1997, jumped to the 81st in 1998 and then fell to the 19th in 1999. What remedial help was she denied after the second year because of her "improvement"?

Worse than the lessons lost, however, are the lessons learned. Many of the kids did not even know they were cheating. They were just following the teacher's orders. "It's important for them to do what the teacher wants; they need to think the teacher is looking out for their best interests," says Moskowitz. "At that age, in the third grade, I don't think they had any clue."