Public schools in the nation’s capital recently reported that the graduation rate for 2017 was the highest in the school system’s history.
According to school officials, about 73 percent of Washington public schools’ students graduated on time, another record high for a school system that had struggled years ago to graduate even half of its students. The graduation rate marked a four-point rise from the previous year and a 20-point gain from 2011, when just over half of D.C. Public School students graduated within four years.
In response, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser proudly described the school system as the “fastest improving urban school district in the country.
“These graduation rates are a reminder that when we have high expectations for our young people and we back up those expectations with robust programs and resources, our students can and will achieve at high levels,” Bowser said in a statement.
But it was all false. A report by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education shows more than one of every three diplomas awarded to students were not earned. The report found that 937 out of 2,758 graduates of D.C. public schools did not meet the minimum attendance requirements needed for graduation. Teachers even admit to falsely marking students present.
Washington is the latest of a series of public school systems found guilty of widespread cheating. Similar cheating was found in public schools in Philadelphia, New York City, Chicago, Memphis, Los Angeles, Columbus, Ohio, and Atlanta.
The perpetrators in these scandals weren’t the students but the administrators and teachers. Both have admitted to falsifying records on standardized tests, graduation requirements and student grades.
In response, some teachers have been fired and stripped of their licenses to teach again. In other places like Atlanta, teachers and administrators have gone to jail. In Washington, D.C., Antwan Wilson, District of Columbia schools chancellor, resigned Feb. 20 after it was revealed he used his position to get his daughter into a preferred school.
The real culprit in these cheating scandals, according to education experts and teachers, is the increased — and some say unfair — pressure on education officials from the government to meet a certain level of student performance. If they don’t meet the mandated standards, school systems could lose funding, and with less money to pay for staff and supplies some people could lose their jobs.
President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015 and former President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top created an “accountability system,” education experts said, linking student performance to Title I funding, which are federal grants given to schools with a high percentage of low-income students.
No Child Left Behind was the first law requiring federally-mandated tests to measure student performance. Prior to the law, states and cities used achievement tests to measure what students were learning to decide how effective their instruction was and what changes they might make.
Harvard professor Dan Koretz, author of the book The Teaching Charade: Pretending to MakeSchools Better, said cheating by teachers — in many cases sanctioned or encouraged by administrators — is fueled by the misuse of standardized tests to measure school performance which has pressured teachers to raise scores beyond what is reasonable.
“Some cheat and, ironically, all of these shortcuts undermine the usefulness of tests for their intended purpose—monitoring what kids know,” Koretz said.
Koretz and other education experts believe standardized tests can be a useful measure of students’ knowledge, when used correctly.
A survey by the Washington Teacher’s Union and EmpowerED echoes Koretz’s assertion that teachers feel pressure to cheat. The survey found that almost 60 percent of teachers said that they’ve felt pressure or coercion from superiors to pass undeserving students.
“There has been strenuous pressure to hit specific targets regardless of student performance or attendance,” an anonymous D.C. public school teacher said on the survey.
Another teacher said, “Administrators, parents, and teachers just want good grades so the school system and the student look accomplished on paper.”
A study conducted by the Urban Institute, a nonprofit research organization, showed that over 45 percent of Black students nationwide attend these low-income or high poverty public schools. Meanwhile, only 8 percent of White students attend these same schools.
Education expert Morgan Polikoff, a professor of education at the University of Southern California, said the result is that cheating is found primarily among majority-Black schools, which lack the educational tools and support they need in order to adequately serve their students.
“There are teachers who’ve felt pressure because they don’t feel that they have the capacity or support to achieve expectations through realistic measures,” Polikoff said.
Koretz said the cheating underscores the fallacy of rewarding and punishing schools based on standardized tests.
The answer “is to reduce the pressure to meet arbitrary targets,” he said. “Another is to routinely monitor how schools are reaching their targets. Yet another is to broaden the focus of accountability in schools to create a more reasonable mix of incentives.”