TOPICS > Education

Cheating Teachers in New York City

April 26, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Students are feeling the heat to perform well on standardized tests, and as Betty Ann Bowser reports, so are their teachers.

STACEY MOSCOWITZ: Yeah, and that’s Joseph, and they must be about…

CHILD: This is Joseph?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: When she looks at the pictures of her former students now with her own two kids, Stacey Moscowitz has painful memories.

STACEY MOSCOWITZ: I think about it now and I have, like, a lump in my throat. I was entrusted with these bright-eyed eight-year-olds, nine-year-olds, and I just feel like I betrayed them so badly.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Moscowitz feels she betrayed the kids because she cheated. She gave her students the correct answers on New York City exams, which boosted their scores as well as her school’s academic standing. The tests that Moscowitz and other teachers P.S. 90 in the South Bronx cheated on are called high-stakes tests because their results are used to make students and teachers accountable for their performance. The tests are growing in popularity in school districts around the country because educators say they are an objective way to measure what kids are learning. But they’re also being used to punish teachers and administrators when the kids don’t do well. Moscowitz, here entering P.S. 90, where she still teaches, says her school’s former principal encouraged the cheating. But over time, the 37-year-old third-grade teacher felt guilty about what she was doing. Most of her students at P.S. 90 were from poor families, and many of them were low achievers. Since the cheating gave them artificially high test scores, these children became ineligible for the remedial help they needed.

STACEY MOSCOWITZ: The day of the test would come, and I was… I was in essence denying them of some help, if they needed it. There were remedial services, there were special programs, but because their scores were not legitimate, they couldn’t get the help that they needed to help them down the road. That’s really what bothered me the most.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So in 1998, Moscowitz blew the whistle, at a time when some New York elementary schools were reporting dramatic gains in student performance. One newspaper story said reading scores at P.S. 234 had jumped from 29% performing at grade level to 51%. Moscowitz went to Ed Stancik, the New York City school’s independent investigator, and after an 18-month investigation, he said he found cheating at 32 schools in all five boroughs; 52 educators were implicated. Stancik found that in some schools, cheating so dramatically skewed student performance that the test was rendered all but meaningless.

EDWARD STANCIK, Investigator, New York City School District: We would go where schools had received a great deal of attention for these sudden, miraculous turns… turning of the scores around, and what in fact happened was that in many of these cases, there was cheating.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The 45-year-old former city prosecutor described how the cheating was done. In one scheme, children wrote their answers on a piece of scrap paper.

EDWARD STANCIK: What the scrap paper method does is it gets rid of the erasures. The kids take the exam on scrap paper first, then that’s corrected, and then those answers are put on the bubble sheets, as we call them. That way there doesn’t need to be a lot of erasures.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: In another scheme, the test became a class project.

EDWARD STANCIK: We had teachers who gave the test in sort of a group format where people would call out the answers. Individual students would call out the answers, and then they would agree on the right answer and everybody would fill it in.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The Board of Education’s chief counsel, Chad Vignola, doesn’t dispute Stancik’s findings, but says the cheating was not that widespread.

CHAD VIGNOLA, Chief Counsel, NYC Board of Education: What in fact were the numbers that he identified were 52 individuals out of 135,000 employees at the Board of Education. He looked at 4.3 million tests, in essence, over a four-year period, and was able to identify 1,200 of those that were in fact suspect. And that’s only suspect. So that’s 0.03% of the total tests over a four-year period.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Stancik disagrees.

EDWARD STANCIK: I don’t feel at all confident that we got all the cheaters. I think there is more of it out there. How much, I don’t know. But when you’ve uncovered cheating in roughly 5% of the city’s elementary schools, you can’t say it’s isolated.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: New York City’s Teachers Union was even more skeptical about Stancik’s report.

RANDI WEINGARTEN, United Federation of Teachers: The allegations are appalling, and we take the report very seriously. But the concerns about the accuracy of the allegations must be looked at as well.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: President Randi Weingarten hired her own investigator.

RANDI WEINGARTEN: When I read through the report, there were things in it to me that struck a chord of not being correct. There were things in it that struck a chord of being correct. What happened was there was a broad brush here that suggests, as Ed has, that there is rampant cheating in the New York City public school system. My sense of it is, from knowing the teaching force in New York City, I don’t think that cheating is pervasive.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The Board of Education has started disciplinary or dismissal proceedings against most of the teachers implicated in Stancik’s report. The educators were unwilling to talk to the NewsHour, as were parents and students who cooperated with Stancik’s probe. And the NewsHour was not permitted to take pictures in any New York City classroom. New York City is not the only place where there’s been a cheating scandal. Other incidents have been reported in Texas, Connecticut, and Kentucky. And some educators say it isn’t just cheating that’s the problem. Part of the problem may be the emphasis placed on the tests themselves.

TEACHER: Take the next 20 minutes.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Union President Weingarten is one educator who thinks too many school systems emphasize test scores without giving teachers the resources they need to do their jobs.

RANDI WEINGARTEN: They’re now being measured by the new high-stakes tests that now measure much deeper and more thorough understanding of both language and math, and we’re doing it without the resources that are necessary to do it. So we haven’t prepared the teachers to do it, we haven’t lowered the class sizes enough to do it, we haven’t made sure that people have enough material and supplies and whatnot, and yet we’re saying, “okay, we’re doing all of this right now”– not incrementally, but in one shot. That’s a huge change.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The federal government now requires all 50 states to identify low-performing schools, and most do that with test scores.

TEACHER: Who can call this special session?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And in some states where there is high-stakes testing, teachers spend weeks teaching kids how to take the test.

TEACHER: Highlight, please, “clerk of the house.”

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The federal government’s top elementary school official thinks there is too much importance put on tests, but says it’s the only way to know if kids are learning.

MIKE COHEN, Assistant Secretary, U.S. Department of Education: This is the first time in… probably in the history of American education that we are on the verge of putting into place real accountability for results, where if we don’t get results, there are consequences for the adults involved. I think that’s a good thing. We have had too many schools for too many years where there haven’t been results, where they’ve been low-performing schools for a long time. They tend to be schools with high poverty. The kids are being cheated.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: John Katzman, who has written a book on educational standards, thinks there is too much emphasis on testing.

JOHN KATZMAN, Princeton Review: The pressures are enormous. At this point, depending on the state, low test scores can mean that your school is entirely eliminated, or that your kids are given vouchers to go to private schools. It certainly means that you’re fired, and might mean merit pay or not for your teachers. New York principals have a new contract under which there are tens of thousands of dollars of bonus money on one end, or termination on the other end, based on test scores.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But Chester Finn, a former Assistant Secretary of Education in the Reagan administration, says the pressure of testing isn’t also an excuse to cheat.

CHESTER FINN, Thomas Fordham Foundation: Pressure to perform is not a bad thing. Educators have been spared it for so long that they’ve forgotten that it’s part of life in almost every other line of work. I mean, bus drivers are under pressure not to crash their buses. Prison guards are under pressure not to let their prisoners escape. Doctors are under pressure not to let their patients die. Lawyers are under pressure to win their lawsuits. Everybody is under pressure in their job. Educators have had this curious sort of charmed life in which results doesn’t matter. This is just nuts.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Katzman disagrees.

JOHN KATZMAN: One of the things about these tests is that once you have a test, people start attaching things to it. The new principals’ contract based on test scores. The teachers’ contracts that will come up will certainly be tied to test scores. And, you know, all the real estate agents are looking at test scores. And it becomes impossible after a while to ever get rid of the test because it’s a foundation of the whole system.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Stacey Moscowitz knows the pressure, and she understands her students’ needs.

STACEY MOSCOWITZ: I do think it’s an enormous challenge, especially where I work, where we have kids who are two, three, four years behind their grade level. Now you’re asking them to perform on a test. So people are caught. Are we going to help these kids move forward, or are we going to make them pass the test with a decent score? And it’s a very difficult problem now, I think nationwide. I don’t know what the answer is.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Some educators complain that standardized tests discriminate against poor and minority children. But so far that has not affected the widespread application of high-stakes testing around the country. And in this election year, both presidential candidates are calling greater accountability in public schools.