Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Dirty Secret of Regents Cheating Exposed, Part 1

By Philip Nobile

The Wall Street Journal exposé of Regents tampering (“Students' Regents Test Scores Bulge at 65,” Feb. 2) is a major breakthrough.

Virtually every high school teacher and administrator in the city’s system knows that grade inflation on Regents exams is, and has been, business as usual. Call it affirmative cheating, bumping up a good kid, most likely brown or black, to a passing score of 65. Despite the moral corrosion of “scrubbing” Regents failures into passes, nobody at the top will do anything to stop the crime spree. (Yes, tampering on state exams is illegal.) Regrettably, the DOE, the UFT, and the Regents don’t seem to care. Even OSI and SCI cannot be trusted to pursue the cheats. Nor did the Mayor and former Chancellor bother to crack down on the phony numbers that made them icons of so called ed reform. Better to pretend that rising graduation rates are real, not fabricated, and that the achievement gap is not as devastatingly wide as (under)reported.

The WSJ story by Barbara Martinez and Tom McGinty tears a huge hole in the cover-up while hitting sharply on related issues like the counterintuitive practice of teachers correcting their own students’ exams. In short, the paper pounced on a statistical smoking gun. An analysis of the city’s 2009 Regents scores in the 60s revealed an inordinate fondness for the grade of 65.

“[A] disproportionate percentage of New York City students barely got the passing score they needed to receive a diploma in the past two years, while very few received scores just below passing,” Martinez and McGinty wrote. “For the 2009 English Regents exams, for instance, students were more than five times as likely to get a 65—the minimum passing grade—than they were to score one point below. In the U.S. History and Government Regents, students were 14 times more likely to get a 65 than one point lower.”

You don’t have to be Euclid to figure out that teachers are giving points away, that is, purposely changing scores in the lower 60s to 65 or slightly above. The paper cited Sheepshead Bay High School as an egregious case in point: “[O]ut of more than 1,100 children who took the U.S. history test last year, 219 got scores from 65 through 68, and only 12 tests were marked with scores from 60 through 64. In the global history exam, out of more than 400 children who took the test, four scored from 60 through 64, while 93 students scored from 65 through 68.” Despite these insanely lopsided ratios--18-1 and 23-1--Principal Reesa Levy didn’t see a problem, never heard of “scrubbing,” and boasted that her teachers were “the strictest graders in the entire world."

Levy is no more believable than DOE spokesman Matt Mittenthal who robotically dismissed the WSJ’s documentation provided by independent experts: "All of our teachers are trained on the State's scoring policy before grading the Regents exams, and we're confident the vast majority are adhering to those State guidelines." But it takes only a small fraction of teachers citywide to transform piles of failures into passes. In 2009 I surveyed twenty-seven chapter leaders. Twenty-four confirmed the scrubbing occurred at their schools.

Levy was fibbing when she faked ignorance of scrubbing. In truth, she was AP Operations at the Cobble Hill School of American Studies in Brooklyn in 2003-2004 when I blew the whistle on a Social Studies cheating ring led by the AP Humanities. Levy was in the loop. I informed her of the nuts and bolts of the brazen tampering seen with my own eyes. Reflecting management culture, her first reaction was cynical not critical, saying that the giveaways moved students off the roster. She warned me against appealing to the state after the Principal and the Superintendent’s office suppressed my allegations via an illicit and rigged internal investigation.

What happened at Sheepshead Bay mirrored exactly the Cobble Hill scandal, only more so. In the beginning, before I got them immunity, none of my guilty colleagues in the Social Studies Department dared to confess. The only evidence I had of tampering was the same old disproportionate distribution of scores in the 60s—97 passes in U.S. and Global History between 65-69 and only 7 failures between 60-64.

This 14-1 ratio appeared incriminating in Albany. At my urging, Dr. Steven Katz, then head of the State Education Department’s Office of Assessment, subjected Cobble Hill’s numbers to analysis. He reported the alarming results in an April 6, 2004 letter to then Region 8 Superintendent Marcia Lyles:
  In our judgment the aggregation of scores assigned in the 65-69 range as compared to the 60-64 range for students of the Cobble Hill School of American Studies on both Regents examinations, goes beyond any dispersion, magnitude or directionality that is likely to be attributable to chance.

Surely, the same verdict applies to Sheepshead Bay. If the DOE wanted to uncover the extent of scrubbing in high schools and catch the ringleaders, including principals who encourage or condone this criminal activity, it would follow the Cobble Hill case formula: grant immunity to teachers in schools with fishy Regents scores in the 60-69 range.
Chancellor Klein was willfully blind. Maybe Chancellor Black will see that camouflaging the achievement gap through Regents tampering cheats students.

Coming soon - Part 2 - Lobbying the Politicians on Regents Tampering

Follow-up: Email from Nobile to DOE PR

Dear Mr. Mittenthal:

I attach for your information my forthcoming blogpost regarding the WSJ’s Feb. 2 story on Regents cheating in New York City and state.
The paper quotes you tossing off the research of three independent economists estimating that “between 5% and 10% of [NYC] students who passed [the five Regents exams in June 2009] actually failed.”
But the implication of their data is profound, especially following on the recent fiasco of reduced test scores for the city’s elementary and junior high kids. It virtually wipes out the graduation rate gains claimed by the Mayor and former Chancellor whose no comment in the Journal had, sad to say, a 5th Amendment quality.
Contrary to your dismissal, I assure you that administrator and teacher cheating on Regents is routine, pervasive,and winked at. It's foolish to pretend otherwise. Think Casablanca.
Would you do me the favor of showing this note and the attached comment to Chancellor Black? She needs to know, though Tweed denies and denies, what every high school teacher and principal knows. Somebody has to tell her that the criminal culture of test tampering corrodes the school system and paternalistically camouflages the spread of the achievement gap.
You might mention that I am the same Philip Nobile who worked with her at New York Mag.
Thanks for your consideration.

Philip Nobile

Commentary on the WSJ article at NYC Ed listserve below the fold

Wall St. Journal has an article re a study done on NYS (and NYC DOE)
Regents exam scores. Study strongly supports the position that many
Regents exam papers are "scrubbed" to turn marginally failing papers
into marginally passing ones. Study also reports that this situation is
far, far worse in NYC than in the rest of NYS.

Don't start about Campbell's Law, please. Article and underlying report
indicate that this situation existed long before NCLB and high stakes

In fact, a 1990 audit from then-NYS Comptroller Regan on grading of RCTs
and Regents exam papers which I have in hard copy form reported that:
a) 10% of all exams were improperly graded, and b) many incidents were
described in which adults had changed students' wrong answers to right
ones, usually to change "marginally failing" papers into "marginally
passing" ones. Comptroller Regan recommended that NYSED and the Regents
investigate the latter cases further and discipline those adults
responsible. NYSED and the Regents refused ... on the ground that doing
so wasn't their job. This signalled to the NYS public education
industry that folks could screw around with Regents exam grading 'till
the cows came in and NYSED/Regents wouldn't do a thing about it. Word
got around.

The WSJ article and underlying study cast the most serious doubt on the
validity of the NYC DOE's reported graduation rates ... because a
significant number of kids who were graduated actually appear to have
failed Regents exams and should not have been given diplomas.

If/when the Comptroller DiNapoli audit on the validity of the NYC DOE's
discharge numbers ever comes out, it should provide the final nail in
the Bloomberg/Klein coffin since their reported increases in high school
graduation rates will have been exposed as totally bogus, while alleged
improvements in NYC DOE students' test scores have already been
substantially discredited.

Kids "discharged" because they allegedly transferred to non-NYC DOE
districts when they actually had dropped out. Regents exam grades
raised to change failing papers into passing ones. I won't even get
into the bogus credit recovery issue since all credits granted under
credit recovery schemes were simply wrongly awarded prior to October
2009. That's because the Regents only passed regulations authorizing
credit recovery at that time. Before then, recovered credits were
bogus. Period.

Dee Alpert

If/when the Comptroller DiNapoli audit on the validity of the NYC DOE's
discharge numbers ever comes out, it should provide the final nail in
the Bloomberg/Klein coffin since their reported increases in high school
graduation rates will have been exposed as totally bogus, while alleged
improvements in NYC DOE students' test scores have already been
substantially discredited.
The report was finished months ago and the DOE did not look good. They are sitting on it to protect Tweed.

The fact that DiNapoli is sitting on it is not a surprise.  What I'm most concerned about is that "to protect Tweed," the contents of the audit report have also been watered down and important findings have been edited out. 

Tweed changed some Chancellor's regs. a short while ago - it was obviously, IMHO, a move to c/y/a for when this audit comes out, so Cathie B. can say "well, that was then; this is now; let's move forward" (and never look back).


Of course Campbell's Law applied to the Regents exams, regardless whether before or after NCLB. Despite Dee's assertion that it wasn't relevant, it most certainly was, and her own argument based on the study of "marginal" Regents exam papers being "upgraded" to passing is just one example.

Actually, having graded tons of math Regents exams myself, I fully understand the issue of "marginal" test papers. In the days when a 65 was really a 65, we (math teachers, at least) always took a close second look at any student's exam that had reached 63 or 64. Two reasons: looking for grading mistakes of our own (rare, but occasional) on multiple choice questions, including miscounts of the number of questions correct, and having a second teacher re-assess the grading on the student's extended answer questions. We as teachers, and our school, were not rewarded or punished for the number of exams over 65, so the impetus for the extra care was almost entirely out of concern for the student him/herself. We all hated to see a student miss passing by one point. On the other hand, we did not give the extra point unless we believed he could be properly justified; we did end up with students who got 64s.

The issues with NCLB and the hyperemphasis on NYS exam scores under Bloomberg/Klein has not suddenly introduced the impact of Campbell's Law. Rather, it merely accelerated by several orders of magnitude the lower level of impact it had already been having through the 1990s and early 2000s. High stakes exams will also be affected in this manner -- it's merely a question of degree, and that degree is directly correlated with the height of the stakes that are attached.

Steve Koss

If I'm correct, what you're saying is that whenever there are any consequences for results, those involved will cheat and the level of cheating is correlated with the strength of the consequences.

Dee Alpert


I don't know if such a correlation has ever been demonstrated via controlled study, but intuitively, at least, the existence of such a correlation would seem reasonable. I can't say that I've ever looked anywhere to see if a correlation like that has been posited or demonstrated.

You are correct that there weren't "high" stakes on Regents before 2000, but there were lower-level stakes. Principals always looked at Regents pass rates for their teaching staff, since it was at least a partial gauge of teachers' effectiveness. At some level, I believe high school principals felt central office pressure for results as well. One additional factor that added some pressure was the increased number of screened schools and parental selection of their children's high schools, since Regents pass rates became one of the most popular and easily understood criteria by which parents filtered and assessed candidate high schools for their kids. Low Regents pass rates became a signal to avoid those schools, so principals felt more urgency to show good numbers as part of their "advertising" in the DOE high school handbooks and outside resources such as Clara Hemphill's books and Inside Schools.

I taught for six years at Lab School, and our principal was not a maniac about Regents. She was more interested in the kids holistic education, even within individual subject areas, than she was in Regents exam scores. Nevertheless, she did monitor them and expected them to be reasonable given the school's fairly high-level student population. When one particular science teacher's students turned in two consecutive years of low Regents exam performance (low pass rates, primarily), the principal counseled that teacher out of the school. In those days, you didn't hear about teacher/administrator cheating on Regents exams very often, yet it's true that it still occurred because passing rates mattered for teachers and principals, both.

So, yes, there were stakes involved, and I don't believe my school was at all unique. As I wrote earlier, the question has mostly been a matter of degree; since 2002, give or take, the stakes have been raised tremendously and the motivation for systemic cheating has, IMO, increased correspondingly.

Steve Koss
back in 2000, when the English exam became required for graduation, we were doing a study of high schools and high stakes testing. .  including sitting in with groups of teachers doing the scoring.  With all the incentives (even beyond Campbells Law) to grade quickly and grade high it was remarkable that we didn't actually see that.  Instead teachers made arguments for holding high academic standards for student work--and high professional standards for themselves.  And they were both surprised and disappointed when low scores on essays were outweighed by the state-scored multiple choice part of the test. 
 What's surprising isn't that there is some cheating on Regents scoring, but rather that it seems rather rare!


According to the1990 NYS Comptroller Regan audit of Regents exam and RCT grading and the more recent NYS Comptroller DiNapoli audit of Regents exam essay grading, there was and still is considerable cheating.  Regan specified the amount (10% of all papers graded incorrectly); DiNapoli didn't.  Current media reports re Regents exam scoring "scrubbing" hint that the cheating in essay grading goes on unabated, but there's no way of telling whether there's more now than there was back in 2000 ... because Regan just looked at the grading of multiple choice/objective questions while DiNapoli just looked at essay grading.  However, Regan specifically found that adults had changed students' wrong answers to right ones ... mostly to change marginally failing papers into marginally passing ones.  This is the same basic finding made in the study of Regents exam scoring I reported on yesterday. 

Dee Alpert

I don’t think anyone thinks that cheating is rare any more.  The pressures are much greater on teachers and principals, and principals are also allowed to change the test scores on Regents.  And DOE has made it quite clear that cheating is allowed, even encouraged, and whistleblower teachers can get sent to the rubber rooms.
Not to mention that there is less of a culture of resistance from those who remember the old days at the new small schools.
You would probably see a very different picture if you interviewed teachers frankly now; 2000 is eons ago, in terms of cultural change in our schools
Leonie Haimson
I understand what you're saying.  But so far, the data we have from the Regan audit in 1990 and the new study seem to show comparable adult cheating.  The new study also reported that it appeared that the problem was twice as bad in NYC as in the rest of NYS.  But the new study just looked at how scores were clustered and did not examine individual test answer packets.

My guess would be that if a serious audit of Regents and RCT exam paper scoring - both objective items and essays - was done, and I mean a large-scale one, it would indeed turn out that there is more cheating due to more pressure now than when Regan did his objective answer audit.  But ... we need the hard data to be sure.

What the current study illustrates is that claimed improvements in NYC DOE graduation rates are most likely nonsense.

Dee Alpert
I think it's also much too easy to view cheating as merely a matter of erasures followed with adult-provided correct answers, especially now. That kind of cheating is, in relative terms, easier to catch.

There are many other ways to cheat, and many more reasons to do so given the pressures on teachers and principals. One can engineer where particular students sit, or leave helpful charts and posters on classroom walls, or provide shaded verbal guidance, or cough or nudge a student, or even look the other way when a stronger student is "helping" a weaker one.

Whatever the NYS studies show, the degree of adult and adult-facilitated cheating is almost certainly greater than it was in the 1990s. Anecdotal evidence, much of it provided by currently active teachers on blogs and on comments to blog postings, seems almost invariably to agree with that perception.

Steve Koss


Whatever anyone says about cheating, the sad fact is that with all of the cheating that goes  on the results are still so awful.  And even worse, if you take a look at the exams.  Few require much in the way of subject knowledge.  They're mostly (merely) reading tests.
Eugene Falik

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