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One Poor Test Result: Cheating Teachers

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.

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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.

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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.

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* 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.

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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.

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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.

“It’s serious,” Tucker said. “And I can understand there might be cases where dismissal is warranted because of a blatant violation.... Teachers really are supposed to model appropriate behavior for children.”

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Under a previous testing program, cheating was discovered at 40 elementary schools statewide in 1985. L.A. Unified that year turned up 11 additional schools where teachers changed answers or coached during the test.

California Teachers Assn. President Barbara Kerr said that the union didn’t excuse cheating but that she felt bad for teachers who broke rules under what she described as “horrendous” pressure.

“We have gone to such extremes -- where your whole life and existence is measured by one test -- that the pressure is on the kids, the pressure is on the teachers, the publicity is so overblown,” she said.

Financial rewards for higher scores used to be distributed to schools and teachers, but that ended in 2002 amid budget cuts.

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Low scores can still bring trouble, however. So far the state has intervened at 56 schools with poor scores, shaking up staffs. The federal government has warned 11 California campuses that they could lose funding or face other sanctions.

State education officials contend that the numbers of proven cases are small in a state with more than 200,000 teachers.

But a study in Chicago schools suggested that teacher cheating might occur in 4% to 5% of classrooms. Harvard professor Brian Jacob and University of Chicago professor Steven Levitt made that estimate last year after analyzing more than 700,000 students’ records.

Jacob and Levitt also found that teacher cheating increased after the 1996 introduction of high-stakes testing and that cheating was likely if a class performed poorly in a prior year.

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Jacob suggested that districts implement security measures, such as more proctors, random auditing and some retesting.

California officials concede that they are not doing much to curb cheating.

“We don’t go out and do our own investigations; we don’t have a staff to do that,” said Axelrod of the Education Department. “If we had a proctor in class, we would need another 200,000 people. Who is going to pay for that?”

In Marin County, the San Rafael City School District found that a teacher in 2001 repeatedly read questions to her five classrooms during Stanford 9 math exams, helped students with problems on scratch paper and gave some answers.

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Davidson Middle School Principal Ed Colucci thinks the teacher desperately wanted the students to do well, but he said that was no excuse. The teacher was fired. “Stress is nothing worth losing your job over,” he said. “Tests are supposed to measure what kids are learning.... But don’t fudge it.”

In 2001, the state flagged test results for five Bakersfield classrooms with a lot of erasures. District officials concluded that three teachers had coached students to change answers.

Marvin Jones, director of research and evaluation for the district, said the teachers’ explanations included not understanding the rules, “everybody does it” and “I was trying to help the students do what I knew the students can do.”

The teachers were not fired -- partly because “we have unions to deal with,” he said. “I hear a lot of people say that the pressure to get high test scores is so high that it drives people to use desperate measures.”

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