Public School Children Cheated By Perverse Performance Pay Incentives

Today’s cheating scandals aren’t about students, but the school administrators and politicians who stand to profit from rising test scores, writes Sol Stern.

John Bazemore/AP

In December 2008 two reporters for The Atlanta Journal Constitution published a story raising questions about “statistically improbable” increases in student test scores at one of the city’s elementary schools. The reporters cited a testing expert who said the purported rise in student achievement at Atherton Elementary was “as extraordinary as a snowstorm in July. In Atlanta.” Over the following several weeks the Journal Constitution continued reporting on similarly suspicious test-score improvements at 10 other Atlanta public schools.

The newspaper reports set off one of the longest and most intensive cheating investigations in the history of American education. The probe concluded last Friday with the announcement by Fulton County prosecutor Paul Howard that 35 Atlanta public-school teachers and administrators—among them former superintendent Beverly Hall—had been indicted by a grand jury for tampering with student test papers, along with other charges such as “racketeering, theft, making false statements and false swearing.” The indictment graphically describes how Hall put unrelenting pressure on school principals, who in turn pressured teachers, to produce higher student test scores, which “created an environment where achieving the desired end result was more important than the students’ education.” In announcing the unprecedented indictments, District Attorney Howard said these were “crimes that have been committed against the children of the city of Atlanta.”

Because of the rise in test scores Hall collected a total of $580,000 in performance bonuses, and was named Superintendent of the Year by the Council of the Great City Schools.

Since men are not angels, it was inevitable that administrators and teachers would feel pressured to game the tests by less-than-ethical means, including outright cheating. Since politicians are far from angels, they were happy to look the other way while claiming credit for the phony gains. And since many reporters are happy to have news brought to them, they have mostly trumpeted those claims rather than look for themselves into the too-good-to-be-true numbers.

John Perry and Heather Vogell, the Journal Constitution reporters who did not accept the releases but doggedly pursued the cheating scandal, deserve the plaudits of their profession. But the real hero of this story is former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue. He went where few other elected official have dared to go in this era of test-based accountability and pervasive grade inflation. Perdue could have joined Atlanta’s political establishment in basking in the glow of the city’s claims of spectacular improvement by its largely poor and minority students. Instead he took the reports in the Journal Constitution seriously and put tremendous state resources behind an investigation of the cheating allegations. The Governor assigned two former prosecutors and dozens of experienced criminal investigators to a state commission and directed them to pursue the truth about Atlanta’s school performance no matter where it led and who it hurt.

As I read about the indictments, I could not help but compare what Governor Perdue did in Atlanta with the way Mayor Michael Bloomberg handled allegations of test fraud during his 12 years at the helm of New York City’s schools. Like Beverly Hall and other Atlanta officials, Bloomberg proclaimed miraculous gains in student achievement as a result of the reforms he instituted after the state legislature gave him control of the city’s school system in 2002. In the midst of his 2005 reelection campaign Bloomberg invited the city press corps to P.S. 33, an elementary school in one of the Bronx’s poorest neighborhoods to hear about one of those academic miracles. The school and its principal, Elba Lopez, had just hit the jackpot on the state’s fourth-grade reading test. Over 83 percent of the 140 fourth graders scored at or above proficiency (or grade level), Mayor Bloomberg announced, compared with only 35.8 percent proficiency in 2004. Like Atherton Elementary in Atlanta, this was a “statistically improbable” one-year gain of close to 50 percentage points. The scores for these predominantly minority and poor students were just four percentage points below the average for the richest suburban districts in the state. According to the mayor, the test results proved that his education reforms “really are paying off for those who were previously left behind.” Not a single reporter at the press conference questioned the mayor’s claim of historic, unprecedented educational gains.

Shortly after the test scores were announced, Lopez retired, collecting a $15,000 bonus for her school’s spectacular performance, thus boosting her pension by as much as $10,000 per year. In 2006 the same cohort of students, now fifth graders, fell back to a pass rate of only 47 percent, and the pass rate for the new crop of fourth graders was just 41 percent. After I reported this startling turnabout in City Journal and reporter Andrew Wolf did the same in the New York Sun, it became fairly obvious that someone had tampered with the students’ 2005 exams. With Mayor Bloomberg successfully reelected, even his own Department of Education (DOE) felt some pressure and said it would take a second look. Schools Chancellor Joel Klein asked his counsel, Michael Best, to refer the matter to the city’s Department of Investigations (DOI). But Best left the referral on his desk for six months. (“I goofed,” he said, when I asked why he delayed the referral.) But the DOI, whose head Richard Condon is appointed by the mayor, declined to take the case. It was then left to the DOE’s small and understaffed investigative unit to follow up. The department had waited almost two years to start an investigation, and by this time the suspicious test papers had been destroyed.

In a report issued almost four years after the tests were administered the department’s lone investigator found no wrongdoing, yet neglected to interview PS 33’s principal Elba Lopez. As the New York Post explained in its singularly pithy way, City clears self. When I asked DOE counsel Best how the most likely suspect could be cleared without even an interview, he responded that the department’s investigator “couldn’t find her.” A few months later, New York Post reporter Yoav Gonen located Lopez at her apartment in the Bronx, exactly where she had always lived. Lopez assured the Post that there was no cheating; the reason that the students didn’t maintain their spectacularly high scores for more than one test cycle, she explained, was that the school had a new, inexperienced principal.

The test-score scandals that have broken out in Atlanta and New York and many other big-city school districts are not random occurrences. Nor can they be blamed on just a few bad apples among our nation’s otherwise honest corps of teachers and administrators. This is a systemic problem caused by flawed education policies and by ambitious politicians trying to drive up test scores by any means necessary in order to establish their reputations as “education mayors” or “education presidents.” Both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama set unreasonable targets for higher test scores as the primary standard for evaluating education progress. When Bush’s No Child Left Behind became law, it left the door wide open to massive test inflation by stipulating that all American students “will be proficient” by the year 2014—and imposing a series of increasingly onerous sanctions on districts and schools not moving toward that goal—yet allowing each state to develop its own tests and set its own standard for “proficiency.” The Obama administration doubled down on test-based accountability with its Race to the Top initiative. Like NCLB, it judges teachers and schools by improvements in students’ scores on very flawed standardized tests.

You might think of the politicians who set the test-based accountability policies of the past decade as unindicted co-conspirators in the plot to keep parents in places like Atlanta and New York from learning the truth about how much their children are learning in the public schools. And you’d be right to expect more such scandals, and arrests, to emerge in the years ahead.