I worked at a school that cheated

When I worked in NYC, in one of those small academies created in the old Chancellor’s district, I worked at a school which cheated in many different ways to improve our test scores.

  • Our principal would trade away his worst performing students to his friends’ schools in other parts of Brooklyn, thus improving his odds of raising his, I mean our school’s, test scores. I don’t know exactly what his friends got in return, but our principal got his $15,000 bonus three years in a row for raising test scores, and then he retired (in NYC, at the time, a Principal’s retirement income was based on his final 3 years of service).
  • We didn’t choose students based on test scores, that would be too obvious. Instead, our principal relied on average attendance and word-of-mouth about good programs from which to choose students. Our ninth grade class in my second year of teaching was the strongest class academically ever to attend my old school in NYC as a result. As soon as our principal retired, we got an influx of students from the poorer performing neighbourhood schools, along with a string of awful principals — one after the other.
  • When we needed three out of our four weakest students to pass the state Regent’s in math in order to avoid being classified as a failing school, each of whom was classified as a "Special Education" student, they all got readers for the exam (one of them also got a scribe). "Are you sure you want to pick B?"
  • We regularly "scrubbed" our test scores and any of them that were close to passing we reread until we had found creative ways to award them points so that they passed. No one got an almost passing score: not one single child. I thought it was common practice; I had no idea this was even frowned upon. When one of our students had forgotten to draw a line in her diagram, we all left the room and when we came back — mysteriously — we realized she hadn’t actually forgotten to draw the line — how lucky!
  • Every single question I was supposed to share with the students had to look like a Regent’s exam question. I was instructed to quiz the students using past exam paper questions, give them homework assignments involving past paper exam questions, and all of my exams were supposed to look like Regent’s exams in format. In the final two months before the exams, our students would see nothing but Regent’s style exam questions.
  • Our students never seemed to get suspended in September or October, but after whatever that magical date was in November when we got our allotment of Title I funds based on our average attendance, all of a sudden our worst performing students would get suspended in droves. Out of 34 kids in remedial math, six of them remained to take the Regents exam at the end of the year. The rest had dropped out of school. Not surprisingly, I had three out of six of my students pass, which is an amazing 50% pass rate!
  • Two years after I left the school, our newest principal (who started during my last year at the school) was fired (or asked to resign) after it was discovered she had modified test scores for students.

I feel bad about what happened at my school, but I was an rookie teacher in a foreign education system that made no sense to me. I did not have enough control in that school other than to do my best to provide my students with an enriching and relevant math curriculum.

The point is, when the stakes are high enough, people cheat. The recent problems that have been discovered in Atlanta are just the tip of the iceberg. There are a thousand other ways schools are cheating: they just haven’t been caught yet.



  • The level of honesty and disclosure is rather remarkable. Thank you for that.

    A part of me wants to be outraged by what I read, as children as were harmed by such behaviors. I also tend to agree that the cheating done within the system that does not result in altering a student’s exam is common place and not discussed.

    The text, Collateral Damage, outlined the problem of cheating that would surely increase alongside the pressures of passing and/ or the potential money ro be made. Now with PARCC testing 9 times a year and tying teacher’s evaluation to the test scores. Very very bad things will happen to children. I imagine Atlanta will look mild in comparison to what happens when adults’ livelihood is in actual jeopardy.

    I worked for the Atlanta Supt, Beverly Hall in Newark. I was the Director of Lteracy and this was pre NCLB. I knew her to be concerned and proactive. Test security was taken very seriously. I would have been very surprised if someone was to tell me that Beverly would be involved in or condoning or looking other way to cheating.

    All of this hurts children, tarnishes our poorly looked upon profession, and out to make us question the validity of high stakes assessments.

  • David Wees wrote:

    I wasn’t even aware until years later that what I’m describing here could be considered as cheating. It took working in a very different setting for me to realize how awful what happened at our school was. What we were doing though was encouraged at every level. We would have state & city officials come and visit our classrooms and marvel at what a good job we were doing.

  • Thank you for your courage to reveal your experiences. I am so saddened that you had to endure this behavior at the beginning of your career in education. How sad that it appeared ‘normal’. I only hope that our national leaders heed the underlying cause of this dysfunction – a broken system, bound in some very good ideals – but resulting in frightening ways.

  • Anonymous wrote:

    I don’t consider formatting your all your tests into the style of the standardized tests to be cheating. Our reading series does that for us by checking a button when you go to print the test. Also, giving IEP students accomodations such as a scribe or reader is not cheating either.

    That said, I agree with the gist of what was said and have seen a lot of this in my own school. We all feel ENORMOUS pressure to improve test scores and we are encouraged to spend a considerable amount of time “teaching children how to take the test” with probes and progress monitoring being done as often as weekly for some of our lowest students. I absolutely agree that when the stakes are high enough, unreachably and unbearably high, people feel no choice but to cheat.

  • David Wees wrote:

    We did more than reformatting our tests, we taught extensively to the test itself. In my mind this cheats the students themselves of a good education. There are lots of really interesting and useful aspects of mathematics which are not taught when you focus on the test at the end of the year.

  • Anonymous wrote:

    You make an excellent point here, and I appreciate your honesty. You never know if you will cheat until you’re faced with the problem. Like you say, “The point is, when the stakes are high enough, people cheat.”

    Where I teach, if you even allow a student to go to the lunch room while he/she is still testing, you can lose your teaching license and never be able to get a job as a teacher again. Why the disparity do you think? And how can these schools go on without getting caught?

  • Wow. Thanks for sharing.

  • Mary Beth wrote:

    Thanks for this honest story, David. What’s amazing is that I worked in a failing school (never made AYP since its inception)for 5 years. We had scripted programs, test prep, the works, but we never cheated. I wonder how that decision gets made….

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