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Is the College Cheating Scandal the ‘Final Straw’ for Standardized Tests?

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The federal indictments in the college admissions scheme come as standardized tests are under the microscope nationwide.

By Eliza Shapiro and Dana Goldstein

For parents desperate to boost their children’s SAT or ACT scores, the test preparation company Student-Tutor offered an enticing solution: claim a learning disability and qualify for extra time.

“This time advantage can help raise their scores significantly!” the website blared. “Some students have even reported raising their score by as much as 350+ points!”

This week’s college admissions scandal provided an instruction manual for gaming the SAT: bribe the proctor, hire a stand-in, see the right psychologist to get a signoff for more time.

[ Read more about how the authorities say the scheme worked, from bribes to doctored photos. ]

Perhaps no tests have higher stakes in the United States than the SAT and the ACT. For decades the scores were a key data point on the application for virtually any selective college, and they remain an obsession for parents and high school seniors, even as hundreds of colleges and universities have made them optional over concerns that they favor the white and wealthy. In the high school class of 2018, each of the two exams was taken by roughly two million students .

The degrees to which rich and famous families may have gone to cheat on them could become a watershed moment for the rejection of standardized tests at every level of the education system — but particularly in college admissions.

“This scandal may be the final straw that tips the balance” toward a test-optional admissions system, said Robert Schaeffer, the public education director of FairTest, a group that believes the exams are racially and culturally biased. “We expect the floodgates to start opening.”

In recent years the college entrance exams have weathered scandals in places ranging from an upmarket New York City suburb to China.

About 20 teenagers in Great Neck, Long Island, which is known for its high-performing public schools, were implicated in a 2011 scheme that involved some students paying up to $3,600 for their classmates to take the SAT or ACT for them. Two students involved in the scandal declined to be interviewed and pleaded not to have their names resurfaced, saying they did not want the event to continue to define their lives.

At the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, the N.C.A.A. found that an assistant football coach had sent recruits to testing sites where their scores were altered. Just a few years later, 15 Chinese nationals were charged with giving impersonators fake passports and as much as $6,000 to sit for the test. There are regular reports that SAT questions have been leaked.

But Operation Varsity Blues, the racketeering investigation that led to charges against 50 people, is one of the most audacious schemes yet: Prosecutors say proctors were bribed to fake scores, test takers were hired to impersonate students and at least one family was encouraged to falsely claim their son had a disability.

[ Read more on the Justice Department’s largest ever college admissions prosecution .]

The SAT and ACT are not aptitude or IQ tests. They are intended to assess how well students have mastered standard high school reading and math concepts.

Though tutoring companies often brag about how much they can boost scores, there is no clear consensus on how much test preparation actually changes the final result, or whether test prep warps the results or merely demonstrates a student’s diligence.

Dennis Yim, the director of academics at Kaplan, one of the country’s largest test prep companies, said prep wasn’t to blame for an unequal system. “Studying for these tests isn’t about doing something that is circumventing the test, it’s about learning the content,” he said.

Kaplan now livestreams some prep sessions for free, and some school districts provide free prep courses. In 2017, the College Board, which administers the SAT, and Khan Academy, an education app, announced that students who used a free service saw gains on their scores.

But for most families, drilling for the exams remains an expensive proposition, ranging from $299 for a self-guided study course at Kaplan to hundreds of dollars an hour for the priciest private tutors. The strongest predictor of a student’s score “is affluence of parents and education of parents,” said Steve Syverson, a vice chancellor for enrollment at the University of Washington Bothell.

The anxiety surrounding the tests, Mr. Syverson said, is premised on the myth that there are only a few schools worth fighting — and even cheating — for.

“We have a scarcity of super-elite colleges, but not a scarcity of seats at good educational institutions,” he said. His research has shown that some test-optional schools received more black and Hispanic applicants , and that students who did not submit SAT or ACT scores graduated from college at about the same rate as those who did.

Some attempts to improve the testing system have had unintended consequences. In 2003, the College Board stopped flagging test takers who were given special accommodations such as extended time, reasoning that it could lead to discrimination against students with disabilities.

The College Board, which administers the SAT, and ACT Inc. declined to provide statistics about how many students qualified for extra time in recent years. But data from 2017 shows that requests for special accommodations, including extra time, quiet rooms and breaks, doubled between 2010 and 2016. About 85 percent of requests were granted. In 2017, the College Board made it easier for students to be approved for accommodations, after complaints about the high cost and burden of having a child assessed.

Zachary Goldberg, a spokesman for the College Board, said most students who receive extra time already receive special education services at their schools.

“We are not aware of any prior incident where someone has attempted to take advantage of our accommodations policy to evade our test security systems,” he said, noting that the College Board sometimes asks for more documentation to demonstrate that a student needs extra time.

But college admissions experts said that in some communities, it is well known which psychologists will provide paperwork attesting to disabilities like A.D.H.D. — for thousands of dollars.

“Parents have figured out that this is a freebie,” said Miriam Kurtzig Freedman, a special education lawyer. “This was a scandal waiting to happen.”

Ms. Freedman said she has noticed parents asking for additional time on tests for their children as early as middle school, to avoid suspicion by requesting it right before the SAT or ACT.

Learning disability designations allowed the children of parents indicted in the Varsity Blues scandal to take exams in particular rooms presided over by administrators who allowed someone to correct wrong answers.

The revelations could further stigmatize those students who legitimately need accommodations, said Alexis Redding, a visiting scholar at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

“A story like this adds insult to injury,” she said. “It casts a shadow on those who truly need it.”

The Scholastic Aptitude Test, originally considered an intelligence test, dates back to the 1920s. Early on it was used by people like James B. Conant, the president of Harvard from 1933 to 1953, to find promising students beyond the East Coast prep schools that traditionally sent graduates to the Ivy League, said Nicholas Lemann, author of the “The Big Test,” a history of the SAT, and a professor of journalism at Columbia University.

Mr. Conant’s goal was to decrease the influence of inherited wealth and make sure the most talented future scientists and civil servants would make it to college. Many experts still defend the use of a standardized measure to gauge students, and say that the SAT and the ACT are high quality examples and do a good job of predicting academic success in college.

“People right now are thinking, ‘Oh gosh, the SAT is gameable, let’s get rid of it,’” said Jonathan Wai, a professor of education and psychology at the University of Arkansas. “But it turns out the test is highly reliable, and to remove the one objective piece of an admissions package could have unintended consequences.”

The College Board and ACT Inc. each released statements this week defending their exams as fair measures for the vast majority of students who do not cheat.

The push to lower the stakes around scores has accelerated in recent years. Currently, about 1,000 colleges and universities across the country do not require students to submit their SAT or ACT scores, according to FairTest.

The test-optional movement gained steam last summer, when the prestigious University of Chicago dropped its test requirement in order to “enhance the accessibility of its undergraduate College for first-generation and low-income students,” the university said.

Still, research has shown that SAT scores combined with high school grade point averages can help predict how students perform in college . While high school grades are among the best indicators of success in college, there is enormous variation in high schools’ grading structures. One recent study found that grade inflation is most rampant in high-income high schools .

Daniel Koretz, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education who studies testing, said, “In principle, having a standardized measure is really important.” But, he added, “The problem we’re facing now is that the measure has become so important that people are trying to undermine its value” through coaching and, in this case, cheating.

Why Would a Teacher Cheat?

Educators often choose to inflate students' scores on standardized tests, and the motivations—and effects—indicate that a little deception isn't always a bad thing.

cheating on standardized tests

It was almost exactly a year ago that 11 former Atlanta educators were convicted of conspiring to tamper with thousands of students’ test scores. The cheating scandal, which led to years of prison time for some of the offenders, has grown to symbolize the ills of America’s emphasis on standardized testing. Tell teachers their salaries are tied to test scores and, the thinking goes, they’ll do whatever it takes to ensure those scores are up to par—even if that means fudging the numbers. Even if that means hurting student achievement .

A state investigation concluded in 2011 that many of the Atlanta students whose scores were falsified by nearly 200 teachers were consequently excluded from remedial education they otherwise needed. And a later Georgia State University study , published last May, found that the tampering had negative long-term academic impacts for those kids, particularly in language arts. “When test results are falsified and students who have not mastered the necessary material are promoted, our students are harmed, parents lose sight of their child’s true progress, and taxpayers are cheated,” Nathan Deal, the governor of Georgia, said in a statement announcing the findings of the state’s probe.

Deceptive scoring practices can be found in schools across the country, and they seem to be growing in popularity in an era that places heavy emphasis on standardized testing. But rarely do those practices involve the kind of cheating that happened in Atlanta, where teachers were caught erasing and changing students’ answers. Instead, they’re typically a lot more subtle—a teacher turning a blind eye to a few errors, for example, or grading an open-ended response leniently—and a lot less selfish. And it turns out that this kind of manipulation might even benefit kids.

One recent study , published earlier this month by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), looks at New York’s Regents Exams, the high-school tests in a handful of subjects that students are required to pass to graduate. Until 2010, teachers were responsible for grading their own students’ exams; they were also required to rescore any tests that fell just a few points below the proficiency threshold. These scoring policies, the economists found, enabled widespread manipulation: 40 percent of the scores near the cutoffs—or 6 percent of all the exams in core subjects—were inflated.

A similar analysis of students in Sweden, published by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research in February, focused on the nationwide math exams administered among all ninth-graders to help determine their GPA and eligibility for high school. (High school in Sweden starts at grade 10.) As was the case with New York’s Regents Exams, the tests are graded locally by students’ own teachers, who at times had to award points based on subjective qualities like “clarity” and “beautiful expression.” True to form, the researchers found that a good deal of test-score inflation happens in the Scandinavian country as well.

The prevalence of test-score manipulation in the United States is well-documented. In fact, with the help of the same researchers who authored the Regents Exams study, The Wall Street Journal in 2011 revealed a significant spike in the number of exams in all the main subjects with scores of 65 points out of 100—the minimum passing grade. (The authors of the Sweden study based their conclusions on similar patterns.) The New York State Education Department quickly adopted a series of changes to grading policies, and by 2012, evidence of manipulation had all but disappeared. What hasn’t been well-documented are the causes and consequences of such manipulation.

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There’s good evidence that score manipulation does harm kids, particularly when teachers are falsifying their responses outright for the sake of avoiding sanctions. But there’s also good evidence to suggest that score inflation —teachers grading a bit more leniently, often because they think the student underperformed on the exam—may have positive effects as well. While inflating an individual student’s test score doesn’t magically inject her with more knowledge, the two aforementioned studies indicate it significantly boosts her odds of overcoming an obstacle increasingly critical to future success : high-school graduation. In New York, according to the NBER authors, having a Regents score manipulated to fall above a cutoff increased the probability of graduating by a hefty 22 percentage points. And because black students were more likely than their white peers to have scores just below the cutoff—and because the score inflation was more common at schools with high concentrations of low-income students of color—the manipulation actually shaved 5 percentage points off the gap between white and black students’ graduation rates. Once the state changed its scoring policies, roughly a quarter of just-below-the-cutoff students weren’t able to pass their exams even after retaking them and thus couldn’t graduate.

The Sweden study yielded similar graduation-rate results, but it also revealed broader advantages. Unlike the U.S., Sweden keeps detailed longitudinal data that allowed the researchers to track student progress not only throughout school, but into the labor market, painting a comprehensive picture of the potential long-term effects of score manipulation. And those effects went well beyond just better grades in one course. For one, the students who had their math scores inflated performed better in other subjects, too, and ultimately received higher cumulative GPAs. The students were more likely to attend college and secure higher-paying jobs. They were less likely to wind up pregnant as teenagers.

The Stanford economists who conducted the analysis speculate that the reason is psychological—the higher test score boosts a kid’s confidence and effort, and perhaps boosted other teachers’ opinions of them as well. For years, psychology studies have demonstrated powerful effects from a phenomenon known as “stereotype threat”: when individuals are primed with negative stereotypes about a group they belong to, they can fail to perform at their genuine ability level on tests. The study on Swedish students suggests a contrary effect: when kids thought they did better than they actually did, that confidence boost helped them to perform better than they previously could.

When Deal’s office announced the findings of its investigation into the Atlanta cheating scandal, it described the teachers’ and administrators’ actions as “ethical failings.” After all, the educators who tampered with the tests didn’t do so in the name of their students’ educational success; they were avoiding their own punishment. Researchers have long suspected that harsh accountability policies such as those enacted under No Child Left Behind encourage teachers to act dishonestly: “The incidence of negative events associated with high-stakes testing is so great, corruption is inevitable and widespread,” wrote the researchers Sharon Nichols and David Berliner in a 2005 study on the repercussions of such testing.

But the Atlanta example, according to Thomas Dee, a Stanford economist who directs the university’s Center for Education Policy Analysis and co-authored the Regents study, is an anomaly. Indeed, a growing body of international research suggests that the prospect of a raise—or the threat of sanctions—seldom induces teachers to fudge their students’ test scores. Altruistic motivations appear to be at play.

In New York City, for example, Regents scores factor into schools’ progress reports (and, until recently , teachers’ evaluations). Yet manipulation was actually just as prevalent—if not more prevalent—before the city introduced accountability systems under No Child Left Behind. Similar trends were found even in a randomized experiment that explicitly linked teacher pay to Regents scores teachers at some schools .

cheating on standardized tests

Dee suspects that teachers often choose to bump up a student’s test score based on “soft information” about that student. By the time the exams are administered, teachers are typically familiar with a kid’s aptitude—whether she’s a good student and well-behaved classmate, how much effort she puts into her homework. If that student’s performance on the Regents exam understates her real-life academic performance—maybe she was sick on the day of the test; maybe her nerves got the best of her—it’s easy to see why a teacher would be tempted to inflate her score.

The authors of the Sweden study draw similar conclusions. While external factors may play a role— the country’s middle schools complete for students and are ranked in part based on the average GPA of their exiting class—teachers, it seems, mostly use their discretion to ‘undo’ having a bad day on the test.” Many may also “experience emotional discomfort when awarding bad grades.”

All this suggests that a little cheating does more good than harm, helping shepherd the kids in need on the path to college or a good career and compensating for the systemic challenges that perpetuate stubborn achievement gaps. But what about the just-below-the-cutoff students who aren’t lucky enough to have their scores inflated? As the authors of the Sweden paper put it, “teacher discretion undermines the equality of opportunity.”

In New York, attitudes toward manipulation—the propensity among teachers to score leniently—appear to have varied significantly from school to school. They also, interestingly, may have even varied within schools. In the Regents study, white and Asian students were more likely than their black and Latino counterparts to have their test scores manipulated if they fell just short of the cutoff—there were just much more black and Latino students total who scored below the threshold. In other words, the score manipulation may have contributed to inequality just as much as it erased it.

“You could argue that … these are students who are close to the threshold, very near it, and it appears that teachers are using information outside of the Regents exam when deciding when to give a students a little bit of a nudge over that threshold,” Dee said. “Getting students to graduate at a higher rate is unequivocally a good thing—being a high-school dropout is sometimes called an economic death sentence with some legitimacy.”

“But someone else might legitimately argue that another goal here is fairness and consistency in high-stakes evaluation procedures,” he continued. “And there’s some capriciousness here that could be understood as problematic … If teachers are going off script in making those designations, we might worry about the implicit biases they bring to bear in making those decisions.” Even seeing a student’s name on a test, Dee said, might lead a teacher to make subconscious assumptions about her merit—to exercise (or not exercise) discretion when scoring the exam.

Meanwhile, in some cases, inflating a student’s Regents Exam score actually undermined her odds of getting a diploma. At the time of the analysis, students could receive one of two diplomas: a basic one and an advanced one. Although the practice may have helped students seeking the former, it hurt those seeking the latter—likely because they weren’t, according to the study, “pushed to re-learn the introductory material or re-take the introductory class that the more advanced coursework requires.”

All that aside, the research lends credence to the criticism of standardized testing as a flawed measurement of student achievement. “As the stakes associated with a test go up, so does the uncertainty about the meaning of a score on the test,” Nichols and Berliner wrote in their analysis, “The Inevitable Corruption of Indicators and Educators Through High-Stakes Testing.” As Dee argued, maybe teachers should have the ability to use their discretion and incorporate “soft information” into their scoring—as long as there’s a systemic way to do so that doesn’t benefit certain students and not others.

This research “really constitutes a cautionary tale about the design elements associated with these tests—[a reminder] that we should take particular care in how we grade them,” Dee said. “This is really going to be salient as we continue to move into this Common Core era, where tests are going to have more open-response elements. There’s going to be human scoring involve in that, and this tells us we want to pay particular attention to … how that scoring occurs.”

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Why Do Students Cheat?

Talking to young people about cheating — and how to prevent it — shows the powerful role of student voice.

Talk Back

In March, Usable Knowledge published an article on ethical collaboration , which explored researchers’ ideas about how to develop classrooms and schools where collaboration is nurtured but cheating is avoided. The piece offers several explanations for why students cheat and provides powerful ideas about how to create ethical communities. The article left me wondering how students themselves might respond to these ideas, and whether their experiences with cheating reflected the researchers’ understanding. In other words, how are young people “reading the world,” to quote Paulo Freire , when it comes to questions of cheating, and what might we learn from their perspectives?

I worked with Gretchen Brion-Meisels to investigate these questions by talking to two classrooms of students from Massachusetts and Texas about their experiences with cheating. We asked these youth informants to connect their own insights and ideas about cheating with the ideas described in " Ethical Collaboration ." They wrote from a range of perspectives, grappling with what constitutes cheating, why people cheat, how people cheat, and when cheating might be ethically acceptable. In doing so, they provide us with additional insights into why students cheat and how schools might better foster ethical collaboration.

Why Students Cheat

Students critiqued both the individual decision-making of peers and the school-based structures that encourage cheating. For example, Julio (Massachusetts) wrote, “Teachers care about cheating because its not fair [that] students get good grades [but] didn't follow the teacher's rules.” His perspective represents one set of ideas that we heard, which suggests that cheating is an unethical decision caused by personal misjudgment. Umna (Massachusetts) echoed this idea, noting that “cheating is … not using the evidence in your head and only using the evidence that’s from someone else’s head.”

Other students focused on external factors that might make their peers feel pressured to cheat. For example, Michima (Massachusetts) wrote, “Peer pressure makes students cheat. Sometimes they have a reason to cheat like feeling [like] they need to be the smartest kid in class.” Kayla (Massachusetts) agreed, noting, “Some people cheat because they want to seem cooler than their friends or try to impress their friends. Students cheat because they think if they cheat all the time they’re going to get smarter.” In addition to pressure from peers, students spoke about pressure from adults, pressure related to standardized testing, and the demands of competing responsibilities.

When Cheating is Acceptable

Students noted a few types of extenuating circumstances, including high stakes moments. For example, Alejandra (Texas) wrote, “The times I had cheated [were] when I was failing a class, and if I failed the final I would repeat the class. And I hated that class and I didn’t want to retake it again.” Here, she identifies allegiance to a parallel ethical value: Graduating from high school. In this case, while cheating might be wrong, it is an acceptable means to a higher-level goal.

Encouraging an Ethical School Community

Several of the older students with whom we spoke were able to offer us ideas about how schools might create more ethical communities. Sam (Texas) wrote, “A school where cheating isn't necessary would be centered around individualization and learning. Students would learn information and be tested on the information. From there the teachers would assess students' progress with this information, new material would be created to help individual students with what they don't understand. This way of teaching wouldn't be based on time crunching every lesson, but more about helping a student understand a concept.”

Sam provides a vision for the type of school climate in which collaboration, not cheating, would be most encouraged. Kaith (Texas), added to this vision, writing, “In my own opinion students wouldn’t find the need to cheat if they knew that they had the right undivided attention towards them from their teachers and actually showed them that they care about their learning. So a school where cheating wasn’t necessary would be amazing for both teachers and students because teachers would be actually getting new things into our brains and us as students would be not only attentive of our teachers but also in fact learning.”

Both of these visions echo a big idea from “ Ethical Collaboration ”: The importance of reducing the pressure to achieve. Across students’ comments, we heard about how self-imposed pressure, peer pressure, and pressure from adults can encourage cheating.

Where Student Opinions Diverge from Research

The ways in which students spoke about support differed from the descriptions in “ Ethical Collaboration .” The researchers explain that, to reduce cheating, students need “vertical support,” or standards, guidelines, and models of ethical behavior. This implies that students need support understanding what is ethical. However, our youth informants describe a type of vertical support that centers on listening and responding to students’ needs. They want teachers to enable ethical behavior through holistic support of individual learning styles and goals. Similarly, researchers describe “horizontal support” as creating “a school environment where students know, and can persuade their peers, that no one benefits from cheating,” again implying that students need help understanding the ethics of cheating. Our youth informants led us to believe instead that the type of horizontal support needed may be one where collective success is seen as more important than individual competition.

Why Youth Voices Matter, and How to Help Them Be Heard

Our purpose in reaching out to youth respondents was to better understand whether the research perspectives on cheating offered in “ Ethical Collaboration ” mirrored the lived experiences of young people. This blog post is only a small step in that direction; young peoples’ perspectives vary widely across geographic, demographic, developmental, and contextual dimensions, and we do not mean to imply that these youth informants speak for all youth. However, our brief conversations suggest that asking youth about their lived experiences can benefit the way that educators understand school structures.

Too often, though, students are cut out of conversations about school policies and culture. They rarely even have access to information on current educational research, partially because they are not the intended audience of such work. To expand opportunities for student voice, we need to create spaces — either online or in schools — where students can research a current topic that interests them. Then they can collect information, craft arguments they want to make, and deliver their messages. Educators can create the spaces for this youth-driven work in schools, communities, and even policy settings — helping to support young people as both knowledge creators and knowledge consumers. 

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Teacher Cheating and Standardized Testing

Created by  FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors | Last updated June 20, 2016

Traditionally, students have been the group most associated with cheating. However, changes in the funding and monitoring of schools, as well as the growing importance of standardized testing, have resulted in a strange turn of events. Increasingly it is teachers and other school administrators that have some of the strongest incentives and best opportunities to cheat, rather than the students.

Standardized Testing

Laws such as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 have set standards and introduced additional testing to attempt to ensure that students follow a common curriculum and receive an education that meets national standards. Schools that fail to meet certain performance benchmarks under this and similar state programs may lose funding or be forced to close entirely. The survival of schools, and the job security of teachers and administrators, are now conditioned on the performance of their students. This has created a compelling incentive, especially in under-performing classrooms and schools, to raise scores.

How Schools Cheat

Cheating, in this context, may take many forms. Teachers may fabricate or inflate test scores, change incorrect answers on student test forms, or even provide answers in advance of a test. Schools may turn a blind eye to suspicious gains in test scores, suppress or deny the existence of reports on cheating, and otherwise obstruct attempts to uncover either individual or systemic cheating.

Teachers and administrators who made misrepresentations in order to obtain financial benefits could be charged with fraud , and in April of 2015 jurors found 11 former educators guilty of racketeering and other charges. Although the laws regarding racketeering are often applied against crime syndicates like the Mafia, the organized efforts by teachers to cheat and the institutional attempts to conceal cheating met the legal definition, according to the court.

The court heard evidence that the school's administration conditioned the payment of bonuses to their teachers on the attainment of educational targets and a significant bonus for the superintendant of the school if system-wide benchmarks were met. The administration indicated that no excuse for failing to meet benchmarks would be tolerated. Teachers who failed to meet goals were terminated. Those who were caught cheating were suspended, while those who reported the cheating of fellow teachers were terminated.

Rather than being an isolated incident, this conviction is the result of an investigation by the Georgia Governors office that found more than 178 teachers and administrators in the state had changed answers on standardized tests. Investigations in other states indicate that the problem isn't isolated.

Reducing Teacher Cheating

Investigation and criminal prosecution is likely to continue as states attempt to preserve the integrity of standardized test scores. In addition, attempts have been made to introduce legislation that creates additional oversight of schools and testing. Some groups have called for a more nuanced approach that allows for some score variation that takes into account how many students have disabilities, speak English as a second language, or come from minority communities that may have lower scores for a number of reasons that are not presently quantified. Others request new processes for evaluating teachers and schools focused on improving achievement rather than punishing for low scores.

The Consequences of Institutional Cheating

Apart from the criminal prosecutions, those discovered cheating may be terminated and schools with systemic cheating may lose funding or be ordered to close. Children's test scores are called into question, and in some cases years of scores generated by suspect schools have been rendered invalid. By unfairly claiming higher grades for their students many feel that cheating teachers create an environment of lowered expectations that impact their student's abilities to achieve.

If you are a teacher who's facing accusations of cheating, it's in your best interests to speak with an experienced education attorney .

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