test tampering

Cheating allegations rise under de Blasio, continuing a Bloomberg-era trend

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Allegations of test-tampering and grade-changing by educators this year are on a pace to exceed the number of complaints made in 2014, continuing a rise in such allegations that began during the previous administration and has persisted under Mayor Bill de Blasio.

The allegations come as New York City has scrambled to respond to a string of reports this year involving academic fraud and grade inflation, such as a high school that let students earn credits without receiving instruction and an elementary school principal who forged student answers on a state exam. Last month, the education department established a $5 million task force to closely monitor schools’ test scores and how they assign credits.

The rise in complaints does not automatically signal a rise in misconduct; it could also indicate that staffers are making greater use of an anonymous email complaint system, for instance. Still, the growing number of allegations suggests that some teachers and principals continue to feel intense pressure to show test score, pass rate, and graduation rate gains, even as de Blasio has tried to de-emphasize those numbers as the primary measures of schools’ success.

“Habits are stronger than words until someone comes in and says you can’t do that anymore,” said Lehman High School math teacher Jeffrey Greenberg, explaining that de Blasio’s rhetorical shifts did not translate into different grading policies or credit-assigning practices at his school last year.

Data: Office of the Special Commissioner of Investigation, Credit: Sarah Glen/Chalkbeat

By early August, more than 300 complaints that fall into the category of educator test-tampering or grade-changing had been filed with the office of the Special Commissioner of Investigation, an independent office that handles adult misconduct charges in the school system. That is the same number of such complaints made during all of 2014, making it very likely that this year’s total will be higher.

Last year’s allegations already exceeded the number from 2013, continuing a trend that began under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Under Bloomberg, who rated and closed some schools largely on the basis of test scores and graduation rates, the number of educator cheating allegations more than tripled, according to a 2011 New York Times analysis.

De Blasio scrapped his predecessor’s A-to-F school ratings and launched a program to revamp rather than close low-performing schools. However, those schools still could face closure or state takeover if they do not show academic gains within a short period. And despite de Blasio’s ambivalence about test scores, they may soon play a larger role in teacher evaluations under a new state law pushed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

“Things are getting worse,” said Arthur Goldstein, an English language teacher at Francis Lewis High School, referring to the state’s teacher evaluations. “The pressure they put on teachers is just terrible.”

The cheating allegations represent only a portion of the complaints made to Richard Condon, the special commissioner of investigation. Last year, his office fielded 5,287 complaints — the most in its 25-year history.

The office investigated just three of last year’s 300 test-tampering and grade-changing complaints and did not substantiate any of them, according to Condon’s spokeswoman, Regina Romain. This year, 10 of those complaints are under investigation, she said.

Still, the office refers most academic fraud allegations to the education department’s investigative unit, the Office of Special Investigations. Education Department spokesman Harry Hartfield would not say how many cheating complaints the agency has received or investigated this year.

The department’s new six-member “Academic Integrity Task Force” will examine the way schools award credits, including their use of credit-recovery courses, which allow students to earn credits for classes they previously failed. While credit recovery has come under new scrutiny, it is a longstanding practice in city high schools that many educators say was ramped up under the Bloomberg administration as schools sought to avoid sanctions tied to student credit-earning and graduation rates.

In addition to the task force, staffers at the department’s new school-support centers will review school data for potential improprieties. And at any school where allegations have been made, officials are investigating student transcripts and the school’s procedures for giving credits and enrolling students in courses, Hartfield said in a statement.

“We have zero tolerance for schools that don’t abide by our regulations,” he said.

The moves suggest the department will try to more aggressively seek out instances of fraud, rather than wait for whistleblowers. They follow a spate of high-profile investigations and media reports about grade inflation and test tampering.

In July, the department removed the principal of John Dewey High School in Brooklyn after a yearlong investigation found that students who had failed classes were able to pass by taking credit-recovery courses that consisted of little more than completing work packets — sometimes without any instruction from teachers. One teacher was told to give students credit simply for attending those courses, the investigation found.

In a series of articles this summer, the New York Post documented more instances of credit-recovery classes that appeared to violate city and state regulations. Several stories focused on grade inflation at William Cullen Bryant High School in Queens, which is now under investigation.

In April, the principal of Teachers College Community School in Harlem filled in questions left blank by third graders on this year’s English exams, according to a city investigation. Shortly after a whistleblower filed a report about the principal, Jeanene Worrell-Breeden, she jumped in front a subway train and later died.

David Bloomfield, an education professor at the CUNY Graduate Center and Brooklyn College, said the new task force could help the city move beyond whistleblowers as its main tool for catching academic fraud by educators.

“I’m hoping that the task force will soon report its findings and recommendations,” he said, “and institute a 360-degree system of prevention, monitoring, and identification.”

making the rounds

Tennessee’s new education chief ‘very confident’ that online testing will be smooth in April

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee's new education commissioner Penny Schwinn (second from left) met with Douglass High School students and Shelby County Schools leaders Friday.

As Tennessee’s new education commissioner wrapped up her second week on the job by visiting four schools in Shelby County, Penny Schwinn said she feels “very confident” the state has learned from its mistakes in online testing.

During the more than three-hour ride to Memphis on Friday, Schwinn said she continued to pore over documents showing evidence that the corrections the state department staff have put in place will work.

“I feel very confident that our team has looked into that,” she told reporters in a press conference after meeting with students. “They’re working with the vendor to ensure that testing is as smooth as possible this year.” Currently the state is working with Questar, who administered TNReady online last year.

She also said the state’s request for proposals from testing vendors, which is already months behind, will be released in about two weeks.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: John Bush, principal of Douglass High School; Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Education Commissioner; and Joris Ray, interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

“No later than that,” she said. “We hope and expect to have a vendor in place before the end of the fiscal year,” in late June.

The day Schwinn was hired, she said getting state testing right would be her first priority. Three years of major technical failures have severely damaged the trust educators and parents have in the state’s test, TNReady. It is the main measure of how schools and teachers are doing, but state lawmakers exempted districts from most testing consequences in 2018.


From Schwinn’s first day on the job: Tennessee’s new education chief wants to ‘listen and learn’ with school visits


Prior to talking with reporters, Schwinn said she heard “hard-hitting questions” from several students at Douglass High School in Memphis about what the state can do to improve education. Schwinn has said she will visit Tennessee schools throughout her tenure to ‘listen and learn’ by talking to students and educators.

Reporters were not allowed to attend the student discussion with Schwinn and some Shelby County Schools leaders.

Douglass High entered Shelby County Schools’ turnaround program, known as the iZone, in 2016 and saw high academic growth in its first year. But test scores fell this past year as the state wrestled with online malfunctions.

Timmy Becton Jr., a senior at Douglass High, said he hopes for fewer tests and more projects to demonstrate what a student has learned. Those kind of assessments, he said, can help a student connect what they are learning to their daily life.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee’s new education commissioner met with students at Douglass High School and Shelby County Schools leaders.

“We figured it would be a different way to measure and see how much knowledge a student really has on a specific subject,” he told Chalkbeat after meeting with Schwinn during a student roundtable session. “It’s a good alternative to taking tests.”

He said he was “surprised and happy” to see Schwinn actively seek student perspectives.

“I really think that’s the most important part because students are the ones going to school every day,” Becton said. “So, if you want to find a good perspective on how to solve a problem, it’s really great to talk to the people who are actively involved in it and the people who are actually experiencing these problems directly.”

The state’s annual testing window runs from April 15 to May 3.

School discipline

Michigan schools have expelled fewer students, but that may not be cause for celebration

PHOTO: Getty Images

Michigan schools have expelled far fewer students since the state enacted laws aimed at cutting back on expulsions. But an advocate who’s pushed for an end to zero-tolerance policies pointed out persistent problems and told elected state education leaders this week that, “We shouldn’t start celebrating yet.”

This is why: Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Ypsilanti-based Student Advocacy Center, told State Board of Education members that in the 18 months since the new laws took effect in 2017, expulsions have dropped 12 percent. But she’s concerned that too many school leaders don’t understand the law or are ignoring its requirements. And she believes some schools are finding other ways of kicking kids out of school without expelling them.

Michigan did away with zero-tolerance policies that had earned it a reputation for having some of the toughest disciplinary rules in the nation. In their place, lawmakers instituted new rules, such as requiring schools to consider seven factors — including a student’s age, disciplinary record, disability and seriousness of the incident — in making expulsion decisions.

“We have had districts and charters tell advocates that they would not consider the seven factors at all,” Stone-Palmquist said. Others aren’t sharing with parents and students how those seven factors were used. And she said there’s a general “lack of understanding of lesser interventions and the persistent belief that lengthy removals remain necessary.”

That’s a problem, she and others say, because of the negative consequences of kicking students out of school. Studies have shown that students kicked out of school are often missing out on an education and are more likely to get into trouble. Advocates also worry that expulsion exacerbates what they describe as a “school-to-prison” pipeline.

She said advocates are noticing that more students are receiving long suspensions, an indication that some schools are suspending students rather than expelling them. Hiding students in suspension data won’t work much longer, though. Michigan now requires schools to collect such data, which soon will be public.

Stone-Palmquist also said that some schools aren’t even going through the expulsion process, but simply referring students with discipline issues to “understaffed virtual settings.”

“Once again, the students who need the most get the least, and no one has to report it as an expulsion.”

Stone-Palmquist gave an example of a ninth-grader involved in a verbal altercation who was expelled for a long time for persistent disobedience, “despite our team lining up extensive community resources for him and despite the district never trying positive interventions with him.”

In another case, a fifth-grader was expelled for 180 days for spitting at another student who had done the same to them first. Stone-Palmquist said the seven factors weren’t considered.

“We were told at the appeal hearing that the student’s behaviors were too dangerous to consider lesser interventions.”

She and Kristin Totten, an education lawyer for the ACLU of Michigan, provided board members with statistics that some members found alarming. Totten noted that an ACLU review of data collected by the federal government shows that for every 100 students in Michigan, 38 days are lost due to suspension. In Oakland County, 26 days are lost for every 100 students. In Macomb County, it’s 35 days and in Wayne County, it’s 55 days.

One child who’s experienced trauma for years was repeatedly suspended from multiple schools. The 11-year-old has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This school year, she’s been suspended for 94 days.

“Never once were the seven factors mentioned to her mother,” Totten said.

Stone-Palmquist asked board members to consider recommendations, including developing a model student code of conduct that incorporates the new rules, partnering with the advocacy center to request an attorney general’s opinion on what districts are required to do, and expanding data collection.

Tom McMillin, a member of the state board, asked whether the state should consider financial penalties, such as withholding some state aid.

“I’m a fierce advocate for local control. But in areas where the incentives might not be there to do what’s right … I’m fine with the state stepping in,” McMillin said.

Board member Pamela Pugh said she appreciated the push for the board to “move with great speed.” She said the data and stories provided are “compelling, as well as convincing.”

Stone-Palmquist said that despite her concerns, there have been some successes.

“Districts that used to automatically expel 180 days for fights, for instance, have partnered with us to dramatically reduce those removals with great outcomes,” she said. “We know alternatives are possible and that they actually help get to the root of the problem, prevent future wrongdoing and repair the harm.”

The Detroit school district didn’t come up during the hearing. But on the same day Stone-Palmquist presented to the state board, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti gave a presentation to his local board of education about what’s happened in the months since the district embarked on an effort to improve school culture by revising the student code of conduct, hiring deans for each school, and providing training on alternative discipline methods.

The bottom line: Vitti said that schools are booting out dramatically fewer students and greatly increasing alternative methods of discipline. In-school suspensions are up, given the push against out-of-school suspensions.

But the changes have also raised concerns. Some school staff have said the new rules are tying their hands. Vitti said it will take time for the changes to take hold, and he outlined some areas that need to improve, including more training.