Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Dirty Secret of Regents Cheating Exposed, Part 2

How Bill DeBlasio and Marty Markowitz Flunked Their Chance To Help Expose Test Tampering in City Schools

UPDATED: Check out Seattle Education 2011
I was so angry to see a blog post in the online journal
Education Next blaming teachers, principals, and schools (although
there’s no evidence at this point that they were the ones cheating),
and saying not a single word about Michelle Rhee or about the
high-stakes standardized testing (“Cheating and Other Deceptions About Students’ Learning,” Bill Tucker, Education Next, April 1, 2011).
Scapegoating teachers is just adding insult to injury, and hiding the structural problems that caused the cheating in the first place is just setting it up to happen again. More principals and teachers pressured to get high test scores, more
parents deceived about how well their children are doing, and more
scandals. MORE AT: Cheating on Roast Beef Sandwiches, Cheating on Standardized Tests: Lessons from D.C. under Michelle Rhee
Feb 05, 2011
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 ..

By Philip Nobile

Reading between the lines of recent newspaper exposés, principal and teacher cheating is a scandal waiting explode. Grade-changing on high stakes tests is so engrained in our public school culture that it usually stays on the down-low and, wrote Steven Levitt in Freakonomics, “just about never punished.” Except for the punishment part, those days are over thanks to incriminating reports in the Wall Street Journal (Feb. 2), the Times (Feb. 19), and the Post (Feb. 20).

Who is behind this vast education conspiracy? Everybody with a stake in the game from the Regents to NYSED to the DOE, from winking principals to go-along or intimidated teachers in grading rooms, not to mention the thousands of witnesses who never whistled.

After my notorious brush with Regents tampering at the Cobble Hill School of American Studies in Brooklyn, I tried to warn Klein, Randi, Mulgrew, NYSED, and even Arne Duncan of the corrosive practice of affirmative cheating in the city. But like my former principal at Cobble Hill, they turned me away.

So last term I decided to lobby politicians. If only they knew about the ongoing crime spree in our schools, they would pressure educators to cease covering up the tampering that covers up the true dimensions of the achievement gap. I started with Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz and the office of the Public Advocate.

I spoke to Marty, as he prefers to be addressed, on the steps of Borough Hall last September. He was in an education state of mind, having just rallied a small crowd of students celebrating the second anniversary of a grassroots organization named “I Will Graduate.” He said that he was unaware of the massive cheating that I claimed had inflated Klein’s rising grad rates. He needed more information before acting. He gave me his card and suggested contacting his education analyst Margaret Kelley. At first impression, Marty did not seem thrilled by my appeal for intervention.

In the same month, I cold called the Public Advocate. I got a friendlier reception from a young Ombudsman named Max Clark. A former teacher, Clark was aware of scrubbing Regents failures into passes and deplored it. He agreed to spread my complaint among his colleagues and said that DeBlasio would make it a priority after he finished up his work on special education.

In the end, neither politician had the will or the nerve to go against the ed establishment and the powerful rank and file, that is, the folks who profit from handing out counterfeit diplomas at the expense of the kids, mostly black and brown, whom they have ultimately, but no longer secretly, failed.

Herewith my instructive correspondence with Marty, Ms. Kelley and Mr. Clark.
The Nobile-Markowitz/Kelley correspondence
September 24, 2010

Dear President Markowitz:
It was good to speak to you after the I WILL GRADUATE press conference on Wednesday. I’m the high school teacher who engaged you on the neglected subject of administrator and teacher cheating. I told you that tampering on Regents exams was routine in the system and, consequently, that the city’s graduation rate, scandalously low already, is far worse in reality. The same is true of the achievement gap.

You said that you were unaware of the cheating problem. When I asked if you would endorse blind grading as a solution—the temptation to tamper is too great when principal and teacher jobs are tied to pass rates on state tests—you said that you needed to consult with your ed advisors. When I offered to send you more information, you handed me your card. So here is some information that should arouse your interest and, presumably your indignation.

After our chat, I had a lengthy conversation with Ms. [Tonya] Lewis [founder of I Will Graduate]. She knew all about the pervasive cheating and said that politicians should deal with it. Of course, she has other priorities and sees the graduation issue from a different angle. She said that she was working toward the time when tampering became necessary.

The next day, quite by coincidence, I bumped into a teacher friend of mine lunching on the steps where we spoke. She told me a story about cheating at Fort Hamilton High School. Last year her nephew was a senior special ed student there. A resource room kid, he has always struggled with math, scraping by with 2s on standardized tests. In June, he called up his aunt to lament his math Regents. He was sure that he had flunked because the test was hard and he left half the questions unanswered. To his surprise, he received a 4, the highest possible score. He also said that his teacher tried to give him the answers, though he said that he refused.

The aunt, a special ed teacher herself, was not shocked by the news, not after what she saw in elementary schools. She explained that students two years below grade level in reading or beset with processing problems have test questions dictated to them by proctors, often the same classroom teachers. She told me that when she was new to the game she dictated normally without giving away the answers through intonation. But soon enough, she said, her supervisor clued her in to the improper method of dictation. She said this sort of cheating is rampant on the elementary school level where she teaches.

The ed blogs regularly post anecdotes about cheating. Usually, they are anonymous. Here is an excerpt from a June 10, 2010 post by Brendan Lowe, a second year teacher with the Teach For America Corps. Although new to the system, he caught on quickly to the corrupt grading customs corroding the system.
... On Tuesday afternoon, my students will take the Global History Regents exam. Wednesday morning, my colleagues and I will gather to grade those tests. While the state sends us a rubric to go by, their materials are not exhaustive and there is room for interpretation. That wiggle room, which the more liberal teachers at one school might exploit while more conservative teachers at a neighboring school might not—introduces incredible unreliability to the testing data.

A colleague of mine recently asked New York City Chancellor Joel Klein, a huge proponent of standardized tests and chief cheerleader of the city’s rising scores, what he has done to reform the corrupt practice of teachers grading their own exams. Klein did not seem overly concerned, saying that it was a state issue, and he’s pressing state education leaders to address the system.

For Klein and other education leaders across the country, the ends justify the means. But if the means become corrupt, the ends become invalid.

Further, I have attached a more comprehensive analysis of Regents cheating focusing on a case in our back yard, that is, at the Cobble School of American Studies on Baltic Street. The title of the unpublished article is “Does the Schools Chancellor Cheat?” You will understand the provocative title when you read how the Chancellor mishandled the Regents tampering and cover-up at the school.
Final point, you should be disturbed that Tonya Lewis knew all about the cheating problem but that you were completely in the dark. Regents tampering is not referred to as “a dirty little secret” for nothing, I guess. Realizing that neither the DOE nor the UFT has any incentive to reform the grading process—both sides look good when graduation rates rise—Ms. Lewis said that politicians should step in. If not, the DOE’s claimed graduation rates will continue to fool the public, camouflage the extent of the achievement gap, and cheat our students. 

I hope that your stirring words on Wednesday about education as the path out of poverty and into a healthy and prosperous life will move you to break the cycle of dishonesty and deceit that shrouds the New York City school system.
Thanks for your consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.
Philip Nobile

September 24, 2010
[President Markowitz replied:]
thanks and I referred this information to appropriate staff and appreciate your dedication to quality education marty

September 24, 2010

Dear President Markowitz,
Thanks for getting back to me. I wonder if you took the time to read my email and attached article. If so, what did you think? Do you feel bamboozled by the Mayor and Chancellor regarding graduation rates? Can I meet with the appropriate staff and help devise a strategy to break the cycle of deceit? The graduation issue, as you noted so powerfully on Wednesday, is the key to a good life
for the minority kids in Brooklyn. It's too important to let die.
I'm counting on you.

September 24, 2010
[President Markowitz replied:]
I am not in a position to verify your conclusions so I forwarded your email to my educational specialist Margaret Kelley......she has your email address and will probably reach out to you once she completes her review thanks marty

October 6, 2010
Dear Mr. Nobile:
I have your emails and article you sent to the Brooklyn Borough President regarding your concerns about administrators and teachers cheating on Regents exams.
This office does not get involved in personnel issues at the Department of Education.
However, the Regents did pass a new regulation in May, 2010 requiring all Regents exams to be scanned in order to prevent the problems you have described. …
Margaret Kelley
Education Policy Analyst
Office of the Brooklyn Borough President

October 6, 2010
Dear Ms. Kelley:
Good to hear from you.
Regrettably, the new Regents scanning procedures will not prevent tampering, not even close. Most of the cheating does not involve changing multiple choice answers. That takes too long.
Regarding Social Studies the most popular method by far involves changing the essay ratings on a 0 to 5 scale. These are weighted scores. So erasing a 1 or 2 and penciling in a 2 or 3 could quickly and easily raise a failing exam to a passing. That's what happened at Cobble Hill (and other schools according to a 2004 NY Post article that I will drop off today.)
In addition, scanning won't catch special ed teachers who dictate the correct multiple choice answers to their students via tone and accent. Consequently, the new regulations are purely cosmetic.

Finally, administrator and teacher cheating is not a personnel matter. It's a political issue because widespread grade changing camouflages the real achievement gap. As a result, too many of our minority students are bound for lifetime discontent as Marty noted at Tonya Lewis's press conference. I am asking him to take a stand on the city's phony graduation rates generated by Regents tampering. It will take a brave politician to embrace this bad news, but Marty is already invested in the ed crisis. His next move, I hope, is to arrange an appointment with Merryl Tisch.
Yours truly,
Philip Nobile

December 16, 2010

Dear Ms. Kelley:
You have not responded to my October 6 email below regarding Regents cheating.
If you recall, I noted that the grading reforms you cited were worthless and that
the endemic tampering is a political issue, not a personnel matter.

Since both the DOE and UFT are invested in the appearance of progress, neither
will act to curb the cheating. Only outsiders like you and Marty can force reforms.

If you are serious about closing the achievement gap and preparing minority students for success, as Marty so eloquently expressed at the I WILL GRADUATE press conference when he and I met, you will speak out.

Otherwise, you are part of the problem that only cheats the neediest kids in our schools.

I look forward to your response.

Philip Nobile

[No response came.]


The Nobile/Clark Correspondence
September 28, 2010
Dear Max:
Cheating takes many forms in the school system. A lot occurs on the report card, that is, with unearned passing grades for course work. 

For example, in 2002, Washington Irving AP Vicki Wojcik told me to pass 80% of my Latin students when 80% were failing. Naturally, I refused.

A few weeks later I was fired. I grieved and won back pay and restoration. The Principal was fired.
[Next I relayed an anecdote from a friend of mine whose principal twisted his arm to inflate class grades. Since I have not checked out my friend’s story, which I believe, I have changed the names.]
Ms. X called me into her office in 2008. She told me my passing rate was too low. It was somewhere in the 30s. she said I was failing students deliberately becaue [sic]I made homework 25 percent of the grade when I knew that the students didn't do homework. I told her that homework was absolutely necessary for math proficiency. She said that I should drop the homework requirement altogether, but add as much as a 10 points to the final grade if they did some. I got the message. That's the way it is today. 

The teacher said that Ms. X made this statement in front of UFT Rep. [Y] and an AP.
Would Ms. X be so brazen in her corrupt advice, if the system's culture did not allow it?
You can be sure that too many teachers have gotten the chill-the-homework message and dare not emphasize this crucial component of learning. A homework initiative is worth more than any reform yet dreamed up by the DOE. 

N. B. It would be good to have data on the homework gap between the races. I'll give it a search and let you know.

September 29, 2010
Hello Phillip,
This is great. I’m continuing to pass this along.
Something that might be useful in that search (if you could get it) would also be to see passing rates in the same schools under different administrators. I might think similar student bodies with same staff members shouldn’t expect to see a profound shift instantly unless there is an underlying shift in standards.
Thanks for your great effort on this,

Oct 2, 2010
Dear Max:
Last year, via Jay Matthews's Washington Post ed blog, I had the chance to ask Arne Duncan about cheating and how he would stop it. He told me that cheating controls were part of his Race to the Top evaluation. 

Secretary Duncan: You cooperated with Steven Levitt's investigation of teacher and principal cheating on high stakes tests when you ran Chicago Public Schools. Levitt's dismaying findings were reported in "Freakonomics." As a NYC high school teacher I have blown the whistle on test tampering which is not only rampant in our schools, but also covered up by the DOE and UFT which exploits rising counterfeit scores for their own ends. Since RttT rates schools and teachers on test scores, what will you do to stop the fakery which only cheats our students? Blind grading is the answer.

He [Duncan] said this too is one of the issues that will affect who gets what from the Race To The Top fund.
By Jay Mathews | November 12, 2009; 3:05 PM ET
If true, we should take a look at the Race to the Top application form and the state's completed application. Somehow, I doubt that cheating was part of the picture. …

Are you making any progress in-house?


December 16, 2010
It's time to move on principal and teacher cheating. Merryl Tisch and David Steiner can reform the grading procedures of Regents and other standardized state tests with the stroke of a pen.
Public Advocate pressure is guaranteed to do the trick. There is no defense for teachers' correcting high stakes exams of their own students, especially in this new era of pass-or-perish accountability.
As you know, teachers will be rated by test results starting next year, this year for tenure candidates. Last May, as a hedge against cheating, Tisch announced that Regents score sheets for multiple choice questions will be reviewed for suspicious erasure patterns at a central location. But this reform is purely cosmetic. 

Most of the inflation occurs on essays rated on 0-5- point scale. As the linked NYS Comptroller’s Regent’s audit pointed out last year, “Three raw score points can easily scale to ten or more points on the student’s final, converted score.”
When I blew the whistle on Regents tampering at Cobble Hill High School, all the cheating involved changing the essay scores.
The Comptroller’s report provides all the information needed to justify the establishment of blind grading. Without this reform the DOE and the UFT will continue to camouflage the true extent of the achievement gap and continue to graduate unprepared minority students.
Finally, here is a comment from Leonie Haimson, founder of the NYC Public School Parent Blog, from
the fact that HS teachers score the Regents exams of students at their own schools (and principals are allowed to change their scores) is a system ripe for abuse. Particularly now when the future employment of NYC HS principals and teachers depend upon improved graduation rates each year. Until a blind scoring system is implemented, with teachers randomly assigned student exams from throughout the state, the credibility of the results will be nil.
Hope to hear from you soon.

December 16, 1010
[Max replied:]
Forwarded throughout office, awaiting green light.

January 07, 2011
Can't wait any longer for PA support re principal and teacher cheating.
You have all the research you need.
If PA serious about achievement gap, the office will jump on board reform.
I'm going to write an op-ed and I'd like to say that PA wants the cheating to stop
What is the PA's position on stopping the test tampering by simply instituting blind, extramural grading?
Looking forward,
P.S. I recently won my pro se 3020-a case. The arbitrator acquitted me of trumped up corporal punishment and discrimination charges. I am being restored to the classroom. Currently, appealing unwarranted fine

Jan 7, 2011
[Max’s reply]
I do appreciate your research and patience through now, but you have to understand that you are asking our office to adopt and pursue a major, controversial policy initiative. These things do take time. I will forward your question over to our press and policy team, but for the kind of support and action you are requesting in an ideal world, is still many weeks or more away.
Great news on the appeal though and we remain interested in this issue. I will keep you informed as we move forward.
Maximilian Clark

January 7, 2011

Good to hear from you.

All PA has to do for starters is write Merryl Tisch and ask her why Regents has not extended new grading reform (i.e., checking multiple choice answers via scantron) to the essay portions of exams where most of the tampering occurs.

Such an inquiry is neither major nor controversial. Stopping cheating is not controversial. What's controversial is outing UFT and DOE indifference to cheating. But we don't have to do that to accomplish goal.

N.B. Tisch's anti-cheating initiative re multiple choice answers was established without blame or fanfare. Same could happen with extended reform.

As your constituent, I'm asking PA to inquire. Let's hear what Tisch has to say and move on from there.

Problem solved?
.[There was no reply.]

Feb 05, 2011
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 ...

Check out Norms Notes for a variety of articles of interest: And make sure to check out the side panel on right for news bits.

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