‘Star’ school shows signs of cheating

When test scores soared at a low-performing District of Columbia school, the principal and teachers collected bonuses. Crosby S. Noyes Education Campus was called one of D.C.’s “shining stars” and was named a National Blue Ribbon School. But cheating may explain Noyes’ apparent turnaround, reports USA Today.

In 2006, only 10% of Noyes’ students scored “proficient” or “advanced” in math on the standardized tests required by the federal No Child Left Behind law. Two years later, 58% achieved that level. The school showed similar gains in reading.

. . . Michelle Rhee, then chancellor of D.C. schools, took a special interest in Noyes. She touted the school, which now serves preschoolers through eighth-graders, as an example of how the sweeping changes she championed could transform even the lowest-performing Washington schools. Twice in three years, she rewarded Noyes’ staff for boosting scores: In 2008 and again in 2010, each teacher won an $8,000 bonus, and the principal won $10,000.

Noyes’ proficiency rates fell significantly in 2010.

“For the past three school years most of Noyes’ classrooms had extraordinarily high numbers of erasures on standardized tests,” reports USA Today. “The consistent pattern was that wrong answers were erased and changed to right ones.”

On the 2009 reading test, the average erasure rate for D.C. seventh graders was less than one. At Noyes, seventh graders averaged 12.7 wrong-to-right erasures. “The odds are better for winning the Powerball grand prize than having that many erasures by chance,” according to statisticians consulted by the newspaper.

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  1. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Well, in fairness, it’s ludicrous to think that the erasures are taking place by chance. A few things come to mind:

    1) Students who erase answers are often thinking past their first responses (often after they quickly answer everything on a test that doesn’t penalize guessing).

    2) Students who take the time to think past their first responses are almost always going to correct wrong answers rather than take a faceplant on a previously right answer.

    3) The very questions that students with mad phat testing skillz (I know, because I was one of them) go back and consider changing are the questions that they were most uncertain about. These questions are noted, either with light marks in the test booklet or on scratch paper. These are by far going to be more likely to have been previously answered incorrectly than questions that the students were confident in (assuming that the entire exam isn’t filled with deliberate trick questions).

    4) If I were given the task of making sure that students maximized their scores on a test and wasn’t particularly concerned with doing so through imparting actual content, I’d focus on test-taking strategies like those described in (3), above. My students would no doubt end up with a statistically insane number of erasures, because there would be a common cause: my instruction.

    Now I’m not saying that cheating didn’t occur. I’d actually think that the dramatic rise in scores alone would serve as prima facie evidence that it did. (It’s just a rebuttable presumption, though.)

    What I’m saying is that I think that a statement like “The odds are better for winning the Powerball grand prize than having that many erasures by chance,” isn’t any sort of actual argument for cheating and I’m troubled that USA Today thinks that their consulted statstician’s numerical observation are relevant to the article.

  2. yeah, but come on if the average is less than one for everyone else and this school has over 12 per test…let’s be real here.

  3. Michael, you really ought to grasp by now that your general grasp on things doesn’t include the basics–like reality. This is not an area where people speculate. There’s tons of actual data evaluated by, you know, actual statisticians. You look extremely foolish when you pontificate in pseudo-didactic mode on things that have an entire subspeciality of statistical analysis dedicated to them.

    In short, points 1-4 are risibly delusional.

  4. Michael E. Lopez says:


    Has something recently gone wrong in your life that you’ve become so hostile as of late? If so, I understand, but would still ask you to take it easy.

    Look — I’m not attacking the statistics that are actually being done in support of the charges being made. I’m not trying to defend the school; I thought I made that clear. I’m attacking the implied idea that “random chance” is somehow supposed to be the control group to which we look for evaluating the odds of a certain number of right-to-wrong erasures.

    I know statistics fairly well and I’m pretty sure both what information USA today gave him and how he made his calculation. He didn’t do a regression analysis or anything like that: it was pure combinatorial math. Statistics had hardly anything to do with it. That “Powerball” comment — and in particular the way USA today used it (and they are my real target here; the statistician they consulted just appears to have been consulted; he doesn’t seem to be actually working the case) — is just asinine.

    So please just calm the heck down and try to pay some attention to the arguments that are actually being made rather than whatever sweeping statements it is that you think a person is making after a quick glance.

    And if you’re going to sit there and say my points are “risibly delusional” I’m going to assume that you actually think that they’re false and not just irrelevant to the point you (mistakenly) think I’m making.

    I’m officially challenging you to go through point by point and explain why my four points are false. I’m betting you can’t do it.

  5. you can’t challenge your points because they are based upon pure speculation that the student second guessed or went back and re-read them. And you could be right, however if the school had a history of low proficiency and then they scored high all of a sudden. And two; the average incorrect to correct erasure marks per test is less than one and this school averaged over 12, almost 13, then clearly there is something to look into. And with data like that, there is obviously overwhelming statistical evidence pointing to something wrong.

  6. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Mr. W,

    My four points are not about the particular students in question in the article. Nowhere did I say anything like “The students at THIS school do blah blah blah.”

    My point is purely general, and is about how it is that erasure marks come to exist on scantron test forms.

    Based on those general points, which are NOT pure speculation, I’ve criticized a very specific, rhetorically powerful but logically silly sentence in the USA Today article.

    I believe I already said I think there’s a good case to be made that there was cheating at the school. But just for those who seem to be having difficulty understanding: I think that there’s probably good cause for thinking that there’s cheating at the school simply based on the score raises. I’m sure that detailed statistical evidence about the erasures is both relevant and compelling, too.

    Comparing the erasure record to a statistical control of mathematical chance is what I have a problem with. I’m NOT even saying, though, that the actual statisticians who are working on this issue are doing this. I’m saying that the statistician that USA Today consulted did that, that it’s silly and irrelevant, and that that sentence did not belong in the article for all of its rhetorical flourish.