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California

Focus on standardized tests may be pushing some teachers to cheat

The stress was overwhelming.

For years, this veteran teacher had received exemplary evaluations but now was feeling pressured to raise her students’ test scores. Her principal criticized her teaching and would show up to take notes on her class. She knew the material would be used against her one day.

“My principal told me right to my face that she — she was feeling sorry for me because I don’t know how to teach,” the instructor said.

The Los Angeles educator, who did not want to be identified, is one of about three dozen in the state accused this year of cheating, lesser misconduct or mistakes on standardized achievement tests.

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The teachers came from 23 schools and 21 districts — an unprecedented number that has raised alarms about the pressure California educators are under to improve test scores. In the worst alleged cases, teachers are accused of changing incorrect responses or filling in missing ones after students returned answer booklets.

Many accused teachers have denied doing anything wrong. But documents and interviews suggest that an increasing focus on test scores has created an atmosphere of such intimidation that the idea teachers would cheat has become plausible.

“One teacher has personally confided in me that if her job was on the line, she indeed would cheat to get the higher test scores,” one Los Angeles-area instructor said. “The testing procedures haven’t been secure over the past 10-plus years. Some of the ‘most effective’ teachers could be simply the ‘most cunning.’ ”

None of the accused teachers contacted by The Times were willing to be identified. For the most part, even their colleagues declined to be interviewed, saying that any comments about their schools would only continue the ignominy.

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But in off-the-record comments or reports filed with school districts, the accused have spoken of their motivations, their errors or their innocence. Many talked about the devastation that the cheating cases have wrought on their lives and their schools.

“I am losing my sleep over it,” the Los Angeles teacher said in an interview. The teacher, who taught at Virgil Middle School in Wilshire Center, denied cheating but retired under pressure. “I got so scared. I am crying now. It really broke my heart.”

Cheating has been uncovered across the country as more states and school districts have made test results the key factor in teacher evaluations.

Investigations have found serious cases of cheating in Atlanta, New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Atlanta’s experience has become a parable for a system gone awry. Investigators there found cheating at 44 of the 56 schools they examined and identified 178 people thought to be involved.

This year’s spate of misconduct in California ran the gamut:

A teacher in Chula Vista last spring gave students portions of the test to help them prepare. A teacher in San Francisco gave students hints during the exams. In La Quinta, a teacher violated rules by reading test questions and passages aloud.

The teacher at Virgil Middle School was accused of scanning the test and using actual exam questions to prepare students.

The number of alleged cheaters is minuscule compared with the 300,000 teachers in California. For the vast majority, cheating remains unthinkable.

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“I can’t for the life of me understand why a teacher would risk their job over this stuff,” said Tina Andres, a middle school math teacher in Orange County.

But, she added: “Of course, many of them probably feel that they could lose their job if they don’t.”

It’s a bind that teachers struggle with in the face of declining resources and students who often lack support and resources from home.

“The current system sets it up so students and teachers must succeed on a multiple-choice test, but it does not provide the resources to do so effectively,” said one administrator who did not want to be identified.

“Both the system and the cheaters are wrong.”

Such a combination can lead in rare cases to a dangerous logic, said Palo Alto High School English teacher David B. Cohen. Some teachers “might even feel that since they and their students have been treated unethically by ‘the system’ … that they might as well try to game the system in order to lessen its impact.”

“With my own students,” he added, “if I give meaningless assignments that have significant impact on grades and are easy to cheat on, I would never condone cheating but I can’t claim to be surprised if it happens.”

Some teachers insisted that their misconduct was about helping their students in reports to the state obtained by The Times through the Public Records Act.

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At Franklin Elementary in La Quinta, for example, the teacher admitted she had violated rules by reading test questions and passages to students.

The teacher “said she had good students” and “wanted them to do well,” according to a report sent by the school district to the state Department of Education.

The teacher at Chavez Elementary in San Francisco offered a similar explanation for why she gave students hints.

“The teacher reported that the students were very needy and had many questions” that made the teacher “uncomfortable,” the report stated without further explanation. District officials declined to discuss the matter.

Underlying the rationales is a persistent anxiousness that many teachers said they feel over performance evaluations. These reviews are increasingly linked to tenure and dismissal decisions.

A lawsuit filed last week seeks to force the Los Angeles Unified School District to begin evaluating teachers with test data to demonstrate student progress. Those types of measures have been opposed by teachers unions and some experts, who see them as an unreliable, one-dimensional assessment of a teacher’s skill.

Last year, The Times published “value-added” ratings of teacher performance, based on test scores, for thousands of L.A. Unified teachers in grades three through five. The school system subsequently produced its own similar yardstick, which has been released only to teachers, called academic growth over time. Administrators will be able to see that data in the coming weeks.

The school district also has launched a pilot program — without job consequences for participants — that tests a new evaluation system including a student-growth measure. The teachers union has gone to court to block it.

A focus on test scores can be found statewide. The partner of one teacher in a rural California county said there is an unhealthy preoccupation with test scores at his spouse’s school — an obsession, even.

“You have no idea,” the spouse said.

The veteran teacher, who’d been a recent honoree as the school’s teacher of the year, was accused of inappropriately helping students during the tests. The teacher has contested the allegation.

There are tangible rewards and punishments for schools, dependent on test scores. High scores can earn prestige and boost neighborhood property values; low scores or none at all — the state can invalidate a school’s ranking if cheating has occurred — can lead to loss of funds, the removal of faculty or administrators, and even the closing of a campus.

On any campus, a cheating allegation unleashes turmoil that is not easily calmed.

Parents at Short Avenue Elementary in Los Angeles rallied behind three teachers accused of cheating or lesser misconduct, questioning the evidence against them and asserting that one episode should not negate exemplary careers. All three instructors have decades of experience, and no one has challenged their ability to teach.

Parents also expressed concern about the undermining of their efforts to support the school and build its reputation as the best place for local parents to send their children.

“There is a risk right now that we are going to lose everything,” parent James Zucker said at a meeting of school district officials and parents.

howard.blume@latimes.com


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