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School Cheating is Fraud Against Families

Something has seemed amiss at LB Landry-OP Walker College and Career Preparatory High School in New Orleans for quite some time now.  That much has been obvious, with the sudden removal of the CEO who oversees the school’s network.  Then, late last week, we learned new details of what appears to be a massive cheating scandal through a lengthy, impressive article by Times-Picayune reporter Danielle Dreilinger.

Here’s the basic story: In 2013-14, students’ scores on end-of-course exams at the school skyrocketed, raising concerns about cheating.  Many students with very poor course grades rocked the tests.  It looked implausible.

An investigation by the school network turned up one red flag after another. There were students who seemed unaware that they’d be taking a test in the first place, others who said they didn’t know what the tests were or if they would count, and even some who slept through significant portions of the test. With tighter monitoring during the 2014-15 exams, results plummeted. The investigation continues, but it doesn’t look good.

Cheating of this sort is rare in our schools, the overwhelming majority of which act with honesty and integrity. But when it happens (as it did in Atlanta, for example), the issue is usually framed as schools cheating the state.  They are evading accountability by falsifying results.  Everyone focuses on the process of judgment and punishment, with the goal of restoring trust and fairness in the system.

I’m sorry, but that’s not my main concern here.  What about schools cheating families and students?

Let’s be clear: Students are the real victims in these incidents. They’re the ones who are misled about what they have learned and can do. They’re the ones who unwillingly carry away tarnished academic records. They’re the ones who are forced to re-take exams and try to learn in schools distracted by audits and investigations. They’re the ones who were lied to.

Sometimes school leaders and teachers justify cheating by claiming they were acting in the interest of students.  They’ll say they were protecting them from being held back by poor results.  They’ll say they were only responding to excessive pressure to produce high scores.  They’ll say the tests were bogus or too numerous.  They’ll say they were keeping the school from being closed.

No, they weren’t.  They were saving their own hides and leaving students to suffer for it later.  Where will the cheating principals and teachers be when their former students can’t get hired for a job, can’t get admitted to college, or can’t pass their courses because they don’t have the skills they were told they have?  Whether the cheating has been caught or not – and I worry that most cheating slides by, undetected – the perpetrators will be long gone.  Students and families will bear the burden.

Bernie Madoff defrauded investors by making them believe they earned money they never really earned.  It was fake.  He deceived them and reaped the benefits for himself.  Cheating educators do the same thing.  They defraud students by making them think they made progress they never made, then claim the spoils for themselves.

We’ll hear plenty more about the Landry-Walker scandal.  Nothing is certain yet, and important questions like how many classrooms were affected and who orchestrated the cheating remain unanswered.  There will be debates about whether sufficient controls are in place to prevent cheating in the future. Eventually, someone will be held responsible. That’s all fine and good.

But here’s what I really want to know: How are the students at Landry-Walker going to be made whole?  Will someone tell them if their test results are among those raising flags? Will someone ask them if they recall taking these tests, and if they believe they could have scored so well on them?  Will someone explain to them that their results may now be viewed as illegitimate by colleges and employers, even if they earned those scores honestly?  Will someone check whether students were assigned to subsequent courses they shouldn’t be taking on the basis of inaccurate tests?

After the Madoff scandal came to light, officials spent years trying to recover funds and distribute them back to investors in the fairest possible way.  They tried to make it right.  We need the same type of thinking in these school cheating scandals. The clean up job requires more than punishment for offenders.  It requires making things right with families.