Oklahoma School Cheating Scandal: Are Standardized Tests the Problem?

An audit reveals that more than 80 percent of the seniors at an Oklahoma City school may not qualify for graduation.

The administration at the Oklahoma City school went too far. Are other schools doing the same thing? (Photo: Chris Ryan)
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

Douglass Mid-High School sits in an urban area of Oklahoma City that has a high poverty rate and historically low test scores.

The school is now under investigation for a myriad of allegations, including a former principal who inflated grades and interfered with attendance records. Because of this cheating, a recent audit reveals that more than 80 percent of the school’s seniors may not qualify for graduation.

In order to graduate in May or this summer, three out of four students at Douglass will have to make up work through various ways, including night classes, summer school, online coursework and after-school tutoring. The audit also showed that even juniors are in jeopardy of not graduating on time next year.

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

Cheating among educators is often a result of the growing pressure in the United States to improve student performance.

“What happened in Oklahoma City is an entirely predictable response to using student test scores as a basis for closing schools, firing teachers, and taking a ‘no excuses’ approach to the failure of students in high-poverty districts to perform well on standardized tests,” Mark Naison, education activist and professor of African American studies and history, said in an interview.

Naison said that schools in poverty-stricken areas struggle with many issues that other schools don’t, such as “homelessness, dealing with hunger, crowding and violence in their households and neighborhoods.” Because of that, he says, students can’t give studying their full attention and, therefore, teachers and administrators can't “miraculously squeeze good test results out of them.”

He added, “But if their jobs are then in jeopardy, the temptation to fake those results will be overwhelming.”

Douglass Mid-High School isn’t the only school to face such controversy. Some schools in Kansas and Dallas have been found to fabricate test grades in various subjects that aren’t even taught to students. In Atlanta, a former fifth-grade teacher allegedly offered pupils test answers. In Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas, Mid-South teachers hired others to take their certification tests.

Jerusha Conner, assistant professor of education at Villanova University, says the problem has escalated since 2004’s No Child Left Behind Act became law.

“Researchers including Julian Heilig (University of Texas, Austin) and Linda Darling-Hammond (Stanford School of Education), among others, have found that high-stakes testing policies create incentives for teachers and administrators to ‘game the system,’ whether by pushing low-scoring students out of school, by coaching students during the exam, or by changing students' responses following the administration,” Conner says.

She says that in schools where such scandals have occurred, school administrations have created stricter accountability mechanisms. Conner cites Philadelphia, where investigations of alleged cheating at 53 schools continue. There, teachers are no longer permitted to administer tests to their own students, and principals are receiving additional training in testing protocol.

“Some districts have established hotlines where allegations of cheating can be reported,” she says. “Sealing tests with tamper-proof tape and locking them in secure rooms are other techniques that have been used.”

But for now, in Oklahoma, the problem continues. The school’s freshman and sophomore classes are currently undergoing an audit. The discussion continues, too, about how to make sure seniors can graduate. The students have had to sign contracts, promising they will work toward graduation. The school district has asked for volunteers to tutor, mentor and drive the students to make-up classes.

“We're going to do the best we can,” interim principal Barbara Davis told NewsOK. “And we're going to help every one of these kids be successful.”

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