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Standardized Test Cheating in Edgefield, can it happen here?

web posted July 8, 2011

Dear Editor,
I used to be the NJROTC instructor at STHS several years ago.  During that time, I had two senior students who had expressed interest in an officer commissioning program (ROTC scholarship).  To qualify, an applicant had to take either the SAT or ACT exam.  That score (plus many other qualifications) would be factored in as to whether the student would qualify and receive a scholarship to attend a 4 year college and receive an officer's commission. 

Although, the students were not in the "college prep" tract, regarding their previous 4 years of studies, I encouraged them to take the exam because it would give them a good assessment of their knowledge and identify areas of weakness which they could still work on.  I know it to be a good technique because when I was a HS student I had to take ACT 4 times before I got the score I needed to qualify for a scholarship.  Little did I know that I when I made this recommendation to my two senior students, I had just walked into an educational firestorm. 

Within minutes of my "counseling" these young men, and their going to the front office to meet with the assistant principal to sign up to take the exam, I found myself standing before her getting chastised that "I was not qualified to make these recommendations to students."  (As an aside note, as a young officer one of my collateral duties was as an education officer, counseling over 1000 Marines and Sailors on their educational opportunities, to include taking the ACT/SAT.) 

In my response to the Asst Principal, I insisted that I was qualified and reminded her that these young men and women who enlisted into the military often did so after our education system failed them, and the military often has far better results.

Needless to say, I was dumbfounded by the Asst Principal's strong and shortsighted statement to me; that was until I learned later that the ACT/SAT exam was a key element in a school's report card. Then I understood that I had upset her apple cart and my "counseling" these two young men to take a college entrance exam was going to upset a carefully manipulated school score. Thus my eyes began to open as to the systematic corruption of our education system.

I now read about the widespread cheating on standardized tests within the Atlanta School system.  What is shocking is how well known and widespread the cheating has been. I then decided to "Google" and see if it has been as prevalent throughout the country.  In the past I had periodically heard about similar instances, but had little noted it,  probably I had written them off as isolated occurrences.  After making a Google search, I was shocked and dismayed to learn how rampant this has become.  I've (found) links to 4 incidents since 1999, but there are MANY more.

When I was a commander, I knew that a conscientious leader must never be complacent.  I would "actively" listen and search out opportunities to not only better myself and my unit, but I would aggressively seek out opportunities to "learn from others mishaps or mistakes."  As one of my old leaders once counseled me, "the moment you think it won't happen to you or on your watch, is the moment you'll be unpleasantly surprised.  Because there are those that 'have' and those that 'will.'"  

Leaders, and those in positions of authority, need to actively remain on guard for unethical behavior.  While I know there are good teachers and administrators in our County Schools, there are also some who are not. 

Then I think about my personal experience as I just related as to how one administrator manipulated the system, and other teacher(s) knew which students they could refer for the ACT/SAT and those whom they could not;  and I now  know in my heart of hearts, this too can happen in our school district, because I saw it with my own eyes to a lesser degree. 

As a taxpayer and the parent of a student in ECSD, I am asking a reasonable question of  the school board who represents ME, "What questions and policies do you have in place to ensure this standardized cheating does not occur in our school district?",  because the same motivators exist in Edgefield as they did in Atlanta. 

Are there non district school employees proctoring these standardized exams? (e.g no conflict of interest).  When significant gains are made in particular subject/grade areas, is the school board asking critical questions such as how were the gains made and are they reasonable? 

Remember, critical inquiries is the mark of a true professional and builds trust and integrity into the system.  Or is the school board so pleased with the results that they maintain the facade of "willful ignorance" because the performance looks good? 

I challenge the school board to periodically query teachers on these tests, get out and personally verify and arrange for audits (nothing fancy just take time to time look for significant and unexplainable gains). Additionally, are there procedures in place  whereby conscientious teachers and students can bring to light instances of unethical behavior without fear of retribution? 

I would submit, could many of these unfortunate cheating scandals have been avoided if responsible and inquisitive board members had taken this commonsensical approach?  Should Edgefield County schools learn from this experience also?  Some may say, this will cost too much....I say, B.S.  It's part of the job description of a leader, supervisor and elected official (translation...principal, superintendent, school board member).  Like President Reagan used to say, "trust but verify."
Mark S. Jebens
Lt Col USMC (Ret.)

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