Experts question cheating probe in Ohio
- Subject: Experts question cheating probe in Ohio
- From: Sean Obrien <sobrien@COLUMBUS.RR.COM>
- Date: Sat, 3 Jun 2000 10:23:07 -0400
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Experts question cheating probe
Saturday, June 3, 2000
Dispatch Staff Reporter
The search for truth about cheating at Eastgate Elementary School might be
tainted by the principal's first effort to investigate, national testing
Principal Barbara Blake told The Dispatch she began an immediate
investigation into possible cheating on fourth-grade proficiency tests after
a fifth-grade teacher reported allegations by students.
Blake said she quickly went to their classroom and began to "press''
In doing so, she might have tangled the investigation, testing-fraud
"Even if a principal was well-intentioned, (such) questioning seems unwise
on several grounds,'' said Walter M. Haney of the Lynch School of Education
at Boston College.
First, he said, it was not prudent to question students in a large group.
"Second, principals are generally viewed by students as rather large
authority figures, and that perception alone might well color students'
Haney said it would be "naive at best'' for a principal to think he or she
could mount a credible investigation at the building level.
Haney has looked into about a dozen cheating cases, including several
involving school staff members.
At Eastgate, Blake learned of the allegations in December. A district
investigation began in late January. The Columbus Education Association
notified officials Downtown.
"We told them, 'You'd better take a look at it,' '' said Carol Wagner, a
union staff consultant.
District officials said yesterday that Blake, who denies any cheating
occurred, chose to investigate the reports herself.
"We do not have a district policy on that,'' Superintendent Rosa A. Smith
said. "This may be one of the lessons for us to learn out of this process --
whenever things happen in a building, who does the first line of
Rumors about cheating have simmered in the district for months, but they
grew louder after President Clinton visited Eastgate and praised the school
for raising student test scores. Passage rates on the reading test, for
example, jumped by 394 percent; on the math test, 229 percent.
A district investigation followed the union's complaint and failed to
substantiate cheating. But lingering questions this week prompted the
district to request an independent state investigation.
"Assessment in testing is serious business in our district, in our state,
across the country,'' Smith said. "We take it seriously. We don't want our
integrity questioned. When it occurs, we do want the allegations
investigated and we want, as close as possible, to get the truth.
"We don't want this cloud associated with any individual who works or
volunteers in our schools.''
Blake said she first learned of the allegations from fifth-grade teacher
McCarroll, suspicious because her students had trouble with basic math,
asked them how they had done so well on the state tests.
Students told her a "tutor'' in the room had guided their pencils to the
correct multiple-choice answers or worked out math problems.
The stories differ at this point. McCarroll and three of her students told
The Dispatch that Blake became angry, called them liars and tried to
convince them no cheating occurred.
Blake said she was calm and was trying to get to the truth.
"I talked with them (the children) on several times,'' Blake said in an
earlier interview. "When I pressed them, the first couple of times they
denied everything. I continued to press for descriptions.''
She said the children later identified the "tutor'' as Sandy -- a woman
Blake said could not have been in the school on testing day.
Monty Neill, director of FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open
Testing in Cambridge, Mass., said the principal's questioning sounds odd.
"A real investigation ought to be independent,'' Neill said. "It does make
me wonder why the principal would go in and start asking questions.
"I would say these kinds of things ought to be done carefully. They really
ought not to be done with people whose primary interest is in protecting
"They ought not be done by the principal. If she's got teachers who are
cheating, it's going to make them look bad. And, without saying that the
principal did harass the kids, it's just not good procedure.
"Usually you have to push kids hard to admit that they cheated. And now you
have to push them to say, 'No, you did not.'
"This is very peculiar. It certainly is counterintuitive. There is a sense
that something is not quite right in the way it was handled.''
Camille Nasbe, acting testing director for Columbus schools, said her
investigation indicated the proficiency-test scores were consistent with
scores the children received on previous standardized tests.
She noted that none of the children who said they received help passed the
math portion of the tests.
"If a year's gone by, it's very difficult to remember what's happened,''
Nasbe said yesterday.
Work on a policy for reporting cheating has been speeded up. Officials
weren't hurrying because charges of cheating are uncommon, she said.
Neill, however, said cheating is likely to increase as pressure mounts on
teachers and principals.
"We have created in this country a kind of testing frenzy,'' he said. "I
would argue we have put teachers in an unreasonable moral box.''
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