1999-12-18 / Columnists

School Scope

by Howard Schwach

Scandals, we got scandals, we got lots and lots of scandals.

"Probe: Answers Given to Boost Test Scores."

If you believe the headlines, cheating on standardized tests is endemic to our public school system.

"Dead Kids on PS Rolls."

If you believe the headlines, there are thousands of kids who are no longer sitting in public schools but are still on school registers.

"SCA Probe Finds Irregularities."

If you believe the headlines, the school construction agency never constructs anything as it feeds its way through the public treasury.

Those headlines are only the beginning. Look at some of the others from recent daily newspaper editions:

"Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire."

"Crew Fires Nine in Cheating Scandal."

"Skeletons in Ed Board Closet."

"Board of Ed Carries on its Crime Wave."

"Teachers said to Have Given Pupils Answers on Standard (sic) Tests."

"City Schools Said to Have Inflated Attendance."

"Crew Lowers Boom on Nine."

Those are just some of the real headlines. It might be fun for you to guess which newspaper each came from.

I digress, however.

The real question is, should you believe the headlines?

Maybe, maybe not.

It’s a lot more complicated that it sounds, simplistic headlines aside.

Let’s take a look at the "Cheating Scandal," for example.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not an apologist for teachers who cheat. They should be immediately removed from the classroom. No question about that fact.

On the other hand, I can understand why it happens in the few places where it does happen.

The chancellor tells superintendents that they will be fired unless reading and math scores rise. This happens despite the fact that the chancellor knows that superintendents have little control over the outcome of standardized tests. The superintendents then put pressure on school principals. "Get your kids above level two, or your job is in jeopardy," the principals are told by the superintendent, even though the superintendent knows that the principals in most schools will never be able to raise scores enough to get the above level two. The principals then tell their teachers that their position depends on raising test scores.

In an atmosphere such as that, is it any wonder why some people cheat? I wonder why there are not more teachers and administrators who become serial killers, given the pressure they are under to do things that it is impossible for them to do.

The articles in the newspaper make it sound as if cheating is widespread and that it is done so that teachers and administrators can "look better and keep their jobs."

This district, District 27, has upwards of 35,000 students. By all accounts, one student in a mainland elementary student was helped by a teacher who "explained one question" in such a way as to help that student solve a math problem. One school, one student, one question. At the most, that help got the student two points on the test. Doesn’t sound like much of a scandal to you? Not to me either.

Sure, in other districts there were more serious breaches of testing ethics. I have to tell you that there is no way that an individual teacher can get a copy of a standardized test in advance. They are sent to the schools in shrink-wrapped plastic that cannot be opened until 30 minutes before the test. If there were a breach, it was done by a principal or an assistant principal. No teacher has access to the tests until just prior to its administration. The process is monitored in each school by district and central board personnel.

Did teachers help students during the test? Did teachers actually change answers once the test was over? I was not there, but those teachers, if they did those things, should be dealt with harshly.

I have to believe, however, that if the cheating were as widespread as announced that there would be far fewer schools under register review by the state.

We had a situation in this district a number of years ago where a principal was charged with changing tests. He was demoted to AP for a number of years. Today, he is a principal once more.

The attendance problem is even more complicated.

I know much more about the attendance process now then I did last year, because it happens to be one of my duties.

One of the charges is that students who are in parochial schools and who go to school out of the state remain on public school registers. That is true, but it is also not a question of fraud, but of procedure.

Two years or so ago a young boy was found missing. His mother had discharged him from one school and never registered him in another and he had fallen between the proverbial cracks of the system.

Because of that, a public school cannot discharge a student until it knows that he or she is alive and well in another place.

In one district middle school, there are a dozen kids who have been "no-shows" for the entire year. There used to be more, but two were found recently by district attendance teachers. One is sitting in a program in White Plains, the other is in Taiwan.

Under the rules, an attendance alert called a "407" was issued for both students and the others who never showed up. Those 407’s are investigated by school staff and then by district attendance staff. They cannot "close" the 407 until they actually know that the kid is alive somewhere else. If the parochial school or the out of state school does not request the student’s records or if neighbors do not know where the kid went, that 407 will remain open forever. I would be willing to bet that all of those kids are sitting in classrooms somewhere outside of New York City. If they were anywhere in the city, the common name, date of birth and parent’s name would kick out an alert to the new pupil accounting secretary that the kid is already in the system and has an open 407.

Some parents play the system, however. Let’s say that a school wants to put a kid in special ed and the parent does not want that. The parent goes to a new school with phony proof of address (how hard is that to get today) and tells the secretary that her kid is new to the system. She provides a different middle initial and changes the date of birth by one day. That student is then given a new Office of Student Services (OSIS) number and is registered. The system will not pick that student up. After ten days, the system will automatically open a 407 for that student at the old school and it will never be closed because nobody will ever know where the student is because the mother wants it that way.

The open 407 will be investigated by district staff. They will call the old number, send letters and then make a home visit. If the student is not found, then the 407 will remain open. In the old days, an attendance teacher could close a 407 as "not found" after a few checks. Today, after some student deaths, that can no longer be done unless the FBI, the CIA and the Secret Service are involved in the search.

That is why many kids who are sitting in parochial schools and schools outside of the state are still on city rolls. They cannot be removed by law.

There is no excuse, of course, for a school to keep a kid who they know to be dead on the rolls (providing they have a copy of the death certificate) or that "phantom classes" are made and addressed by staff and resources. That happened in two schools out of 11,000. Is that an epidemic of cheating? I don’t think so.

As for the SCA, everything the papers say about them is true. The same problems, however, existed when the last group did the job, and the group before that. There is no answer to that problem except to hire people that can do the job rather than hire people who the mayor owes favors to.

Scandals, we got scandals and lots of problems. The problems will not be solved as long as people such as the mayor look for scapegoats rather than answers.


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