Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

Numbers Never Lie, but People Might

Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

Numbers Never Lie, but People Might

Article excerpt

Educational institutions face many inducements to manipulate data to make their performance appear more impressive. For instance, the results of standardized tests affect the funding of elementary and secondary public schools. And U.S. News and World Report ranks colleges and universities on a wide range of criteria such as entrance exams, graduation rates, and financial resources. Thus, best practices sometimes give way to misleading ploys at some places of learning.

Emory University misrepresented admissions numbers for more than a decade to shine better light on the campus, according to a school press release and reporter Beckie Supiano in The Chronicle of Higher Education in August 2012. A three-month internal investigation revealed that former employees in the admissions office inflated SAT and ACT scores by including them for all admitted applicants instead of only new enrollees, for example. Also, Emory claimed 87 percent of incoming students in 2010 were in the top 10 percent of their high school class when, in fact, 75 percent were. Emory's leadership in the admissions and institutional research offices at the time knew of such deception.

In March, 35 primary and secondary public school educators in Atlanta were indicted in a cheating scandal after a two-and-a-half-year probe, documented Michael Winerip for The New York Times. Jackie Parks, a third-grade teacher and state witness, described teachers meeting during standardized testing to erase students' incorrect answers and replace them with correct ones. In 2005 at a middle school, proficiency for eighth-graders rose in math from 24 percent to 86 percent and in reading from 35 percent to 78 percent from the prior year. Ironically, because of the boosts, that school lost 5750,000 in state and federal aid as a high-need site. On the other hand, the then-superintendent of the district, Beverly L. Hall, who also was charged and who retired in 2011, earned more than $500,000 in performance bonuses during her decade-long tenure, plus the national superintendent of the year award in 2009. The 35 teachers, principals and administrators "conspired to either cheat, conceal cheating, or retaliate against whistle-blowers," Winerip quoted from the indictment, ft followed an 800-page report by the state in June 2011 "implicating 178 teachers and principals--including 82 who confessed," Winerip continued. "By now, almost all are gone ... [T]hey have resigned or were fired or lost their teaching licenses at administrative hearings."

Economists Brian A. Jacob and Steven D. Levitt, in an August 2003 article in The Quarterly Journal of Economics, scrutinize the hows and whys of such subterfuge. They estimate that "serious cases of teacher or administrator cheating on standardized tests occur in a minimum of 4-5 percent of elementary school classrooms annually," based on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills given to Chicago public school students in grades 3-8 from 1993 to 2000. Two warning signs arise: unexpected fluctuations in scores (as alluded to above in Atlanta) and unusual patterns of answers (blocks of identical responses across students in a classroom or a single student answering tougher questions correctly and easier questions incorrectly). A change in policy in 1996 to stress standardized tests for low-achieving students led to more cheating in these classrooms, the authors suggest, but not in those with average and high-achieving students. …

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