Questionable Cheating Allegations

K-12 Testing

School officials in Michigan and Maryland recently retreated from widely publicized allegations of cheating against teachers, clearing the majority of those suspected of all charges and significantly reducing disciplinary actions for others. Educators and parents involved in the cases complained that administrators overreacted to slim evidence and took a “shoot first - ask questions later” approach to their investigations.


Michigan’s “cheating scandal” began when state treasury department personnel published a list of 67 schools it claimed had tampered with student answers on the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) exams before contacting any of the individual schools involved. Forty-six of those schools were cleared of all charges after educators demonstrated that similar answers given by students on some MEAP questions could be explained by factors other than teacher interference, such as increased test preparation through memorization of words and phrases in classroom textbooks.


In Maryland, Montgomery County school board officials significantly reduced stiff penalties, such as suspension and license removal, initially recommended for ten middle school teachers accused of cheating at one school, leading several of the teachers to drop appeals. More than a dozen teachers had been accused of sharing test questions with students before the test was administered. Three teachers still face possible disciplinary action and are pursuing appeals.


Despite the seriousness of the allegations, parents expressed outrage at the severity of the original penalties and the harmful impact of pulling several teachers from the classrooms six weeks before the end of the school year.


Teachers and parents expressed dismay over the possible ongoing damage to reputations of the schools and teachers. In a similar situation last year, cheating charges against dozens of New York City teachers that had generated tabloid headlines were quietly dropped after investigations. Some of those teachers left the profession.


While some evidence suggests that cheating has increased as the stakes on tests have risen (see Examiner, Spring 1999), these recent cases suggest a “witch hunt” atmosphere may also be developing. Additionally, the Michigan case shows how pervasive “teaching to the test” has become, even when it leads to limited, rote learning to boost test scores.