Student test scores subject to fraud, cheating

By Gina Bliss

The Daily Record Newswire

About a year ago I watched a documentary titled Waiting for Superman, which was about the need for education reform here in the United States. The movie depicted desperation among parents in low-performing districts who wanted to send their children to charter schools where admission was based on a lottery system.

The documentary followed a handful of students and their families and showed the very real consequences of not winning that lottery and being trapped in schools that are "dropout factories."

There's no doubt the United States needs education reform to keep up in the global market. And it's not that we haven't tried. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 was proposed by the George W. Bush administration and had overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress. It enacted standards-based reform and required states to individually set high standards and develop assessments (standardized tests).

The incentives and penalties in No Child Left Behind have unfortunately motivated schools, districts and states to manipulate results. For example, critics have complained that schools employ "creative reclassification" of drop-outs to lower that unfavorable statistic.

Late last year, New York state won nearly $700 million of federal Race to the Top grant money. This is an education initiative that includes merit pay for teachers that is based, in part, on student achievement that will be measured by NYS standardized tests. There is a lot of debate among educators about whether merit pay is a good idea. I'm concerned that the emphasis on standardized tests will incentivize fraudulent test scores.

A few weeks ago, an SAT cheating scandal made the news. The SAT test is the most common college admissions test in the United States. It was introduced in 1926 and is intended to assess a student's readiness for college.

In this scam, a 19-year-old college student named Sam Eshaghoff used fake IDs in order to take the exam for high school students. He got great scores for his customers, and they paid him anywhere from $1,500 to $2,500 for each test. Eshaghoff faces a felony charge, and six customers have been charged with misdemeanors, so far.

The prosecutor in the Eshaghoff case has suggested that cheating is widespread. A principal at Great Neck North School District in Long Island, where the scandal took place, said the procedures used to give the test are "grossly inadequate in terms of security."

If cheating is widespread on the SATs, is it also a problem on other standardized tests? Of course it is: Atlanta Public Schools had a major cheating scandal this year.

Georgia public elementary schools administer the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test. During the 2000s test scores showed significant steady improvement in Atlanta and the district received funding from the Broad Foundation and the Gates Foundation. When the state investigated 56 schools, 44 were found to have teachers and principals changing test answers and driving the improved scores -- 178 teachers and administrators were implicated. The investigative report uses phrases such as "culture of fear" and high test results "at any cost."

Please note this cheating was done by adults, not children. Teachers and administrators erased and changed answers. In fact, it was the high rate of erasures on the exams that initiated the investigation.

In early 2009, Atlanta's superintendent of schools, Beverly Hall, was named Superintendent of the Year because of the achievements of her 55,000-student district. She resigned from her position just before the report was released.

This is the largest cheating scandal across the country, but there are plenty of others. Education in the United States has developed a dependence on standardized testing -- which invites systemic cheating.

Test scores should not be all that matters, but they will probably always be a part of the educational process.

Cheating on standardized tests is one of the easiest issues in education to resolve. Educators need to implement controls over test-taking similar to those controls businesses would have over inventory or other assets.

Who should give the test, and who should grade the test? Should someone who is independent observe or audit the exam rooms? Should teachers have access to their students' tests once they are completed?

In New York state, children take NYS assessments up to eighth grade and Regents exams in high school. I have heard students describe things like teachers looking over students' shoulders to say, "look at that one again."

That's cheating. If that already occurs, what do you think will happen when merit pay depends on student performance?

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Gina Bliss, CPA, CFE, is a senior manager at EFP Rotenberg LLP, Certified Public Accountants and Business Consultants, who specializes in internal audit, fraud audit and forensic accounting. She may be reached at (585) 295-0536 or by email at gbliss@efprotenberg.com.

Published: Fri, Nov 18, 2011