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Money Maker Series Part 4

Big Score: Cheating for Dollars


Any academic will tell you that cheating is an inexcusable act worthy of severe punishment. But what happens when school officials, not the students, are the ones fixing grades?

The erasure marks on students' tests led authorities to suspect school officials had cheated to get the children better grades.

That is exactly what happened at a Baltimore elementary school. The Baltimore Sun first reported that thousands of answers on standardized tests were changed, by hand, at George Washington Elementary School, calling into question everything from the school’s national Blue Ribbon status to the amount of federal funding it receives.

Because standardized test scores drive federal funding for mandates like the No Child Left Behind Act, it behooves schools to post high marks. Peripheral benefits like reputation, which bolster enrollment, are also enhanced by good scores. That motivation is designed to increase teacher and student achievement. In cases like Baltimore’s, however, it opens the door for corruption.

The same thing happened in Atlanta, where the city’s public school district was the target of a federal investigation. Again, school officials went low-tech. Eschewing fancy computer hacks to alter test scores, those responsible took each test, one at a time, and erased the wrong answer to fill in the correct one. All this was done by hand, on hundreds of tests, in an attempt to secure the $360,000 the schools receive in federal bonus grants for good test scores. While the community was outraged at the tactics taken to increase the funding, some were impressed that an estimated 250,000 answers were altered by hand.

In both cases it was clear to authorities that the cheating was done by someone at the school. The Baltimore Sun quotes the schools’ CEO Andres Alonso as saying that hundreds of test booklets were reviewed, turning up thousands of eraser marks that proved the cheating. He said not only was virtually every answer changed from wrong to right, but that the erasure marks all went in the same direction. That led him to believe that the tampering was done by an adult.

"The erasures were outstanding in terms of the number, far exceeding anything that would be a normal response of students changing an answer," Maryland Schools Superintendent Nancy Grasmick added in the Sun. "It was a total aberration of what we would ever find."

In Atlanta the state flagged the dubious tests for excessive erasures during a routine review.

Related resources

Other articles in the Money Maker series:

Part 1 - A Madison Ave. Education: Schools use ads to raise money

Part 2 - Gold Digging: School’s cash-for-gold event raises eyebrows

Part 3 - Taking a Gamble: Schools rake in casino profits

Part 5 – Filling Seats: Bribing kids to come to school

Part 6 - 'Sheepish' About Cutting Costs: Schools trim landscaping bills with 'live lawnmowers'

Article by Jason Tomaszewski, EducationWorld Associate Editor
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