Teacher Cheating Ring Busted: Test-Taking Scandal Rocks the South

Test-takers-for-hire fraudulently took certification exams for educators in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas.
A teaching scandal in three Mid-South states has been going on for years. Is it happening in your state too? (Photo: Stephan Hoeck)
Sep 21, 2012· 2 MIN READ
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

It seems almost impossible that such a teacher scam could occur in the 21st century.

But in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas, Mid-South teachers hired others to take their certification tests. The scheme took place from the mid-1990s to 2010 and involved teachers who paid thousands of dollars to avoid taking tests.

This week, ten more names were added to a long list of indictments. But how did such a scheme work?

More: Harvard Investigates 125 Students for Cheating

According to the United States Attorney’s Office in the Western District of Tennessee, ringleader Clarence Mumford, Sr., 59, of Memphis, enlisted a group of people that initially took tests at the University of Memphis before moving to other locations in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee. The move was “to avoid being detected by proctors or administrators who might recognize him at the University of Memphis,” according to a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

One of the test-takers, John Bowen, 63, of Memphis, tipped off investigators in June 2009 when he was caught at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro. He took one test in the morning and returned that afternoon to take another test under another name. An investigation was launched by Educational Testing Service, the world's largest private nonprofit educational testing and assessment organization. They turned the investigation over to several agencies, including the Tennessee Department of Education and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

Bowen pled guilty this week. He admitted at that hearing that he began taking tests for Mumford, Sr. after he met the man during the 1994-1995 school year.

Mumford has created an atmosphere in which teachers who are not only unqualified, but who have also gained credentials by fraud, stand in front of our children every day.

In July, Mumford Sr., was charged in a 45-count indictment for “conspiracy to commit mail fraud, wire fraud, and Social Security fraud; aggravated identity theft; and fraud in connection with identification documents.”

In August, his son and another person were charged with similar counts.

Mumford certainly knew how the education system worked.

He was assistant principal at Humes High School in Memphis, where Bowen was a substitute teacher. Bowen told investigators that he took three or four tests a year since 2000. He was paid hundreds of dollars per test. Other indictments showed some takers were paid thousands of dollars per test.

Many times, test-takers took PRAXIS tests, which “are taken by individuals entering the teaching profession as part of the certification process required by many states and professional licensing organizations,” according to the test’s website.

Edward L. Stanton III, United States Attorney for the Western District of Tennessee, said in a July release, “In an area that should be sacrosanct—the education of our children—Mumford has created an atmosphere in which teachers who are not only unqualified, but who have also gained credentials by fraud, stand in front of our children every day. Mumford’s conduct has done harm to the systems in which unqualified teachers have been able to teach, to the individual schools, to qualified individuals who could have obtained jobs filled by unqualified teachers, and, ultimately, to a generation of our schoolchildren.”

Those charged face prison sentences of up to five years and/or fines of as much as a quarter million dollars.

Such scams are, sadly, widespread in the country’s educational systems.

Last fall, more than 20 current or former high school students were charged in a test-taking scandal where students paid between $500 to $3,600 to other students to take SAT or ACT tests for them.

Also in 2011, a cheating ring was discovered in the Atlanta Public Schools. That scandal involved more than 100 educators who allegedly cheated on standardized tests in nearly half of the district’s 100 schools for several years.

The Mid-South scandal is one of the largest, however, involving teachers. The investigation is far from over.

“This office will continue to pursue all members and beneficiaries of this ring to bring their identities to light and ensure that teachers involved in the ring are held accountable,” Stanton said. “Their accountability will strengthen the good names of the overwhelming majority of teachers who earned their positions legitimately and who dedicate their lives to the education of our children.”

Do you think more needs to be done to prevent further teacher cheating scandals from taking place?