In 2008, teacher assistant Johanna Munoz helped her Orlando-area fourth-graders on the state achievement test.
According to investigative documents obtained by USA TODAY, Munoz erased wrong answers and whispered corrections while she was helping non-native English speakers with difficult words. She snapped her fingers in a code students understood to mean they should correct an answer.
While the teacher was out of the room, Munoz warned the students “not to tell anyone, not even your parents, what I did.” If they told, she warned, they “would fail fourth grade.”
This is high-stakes testing. The standardized tests required by the federal No Child Left Behind law have become one of the most important — and controversial — ways to measure a student’s progress, a teacher’s competence, a school’s success and a state’s commitment to education. That can be a heavy load for an assessment built on paper booklets and bubble sheets.
At Groveland Elementary in Groveland, Fla., where Munoz taught, at least one child told a parent about getting answers to the test, and the school began to investigate. Munoz pulled students out of class and again warned them not to tell. But one by one, the students confessed.
“You could almost see the relief in their face(s) as they let go of this burden,” says Groveland Principal Dale Delpit. One fourth-grader who initially defended his beloved teacher later blurted, “I lied!” in front of his classmates, tears streaming down his face, records show.
Munoz resigned after the school district concluded that she cheated and recommended that the school board fire her. She denies giving her students any answers and says she was never alone with themin the classroom.
“I have no clue why the kids said I helped them. I think one said it, then they all did,” says Munoz, 28, who was proctoring the test for the first time. She is now a day care worker.
Teachers cheat sometimes and so do principals, according to academic studies. Why it happens and how often — and the seriousness of efforts to stop it — are open to debate. Punishment varies from state to state, too. In an investigation of standardized testing in six states and the District of Columbia, USA TODAY found that an infraction such as casually coaching one student can carry nearly the same punishment as deliberately changing answers for a whole class.
The consequences can be drastic: Cheating can cost school districts thousands of dollars for makeup tests, set back the careers of gifted teachers and create confusion for schools and parents over a child’s academic progress.
In an Arizona State University survey published last year, more than 50% of teachers and other educators admitted to some kind of cheating on Arizona’s state tests. The authors of the online survey of more than 3,000 educators defined cheating broadly — from accidentally leaving multiplication tables on classroom walls to changing answers.
Only 1% of the Arizona educators admitted to what the study’s authors called the worst kinds of cheating: changing students’ answers on tests or telling academically weak students not to take the test.
Cheating investigations, however, are far rarer than these numbers suggest.
USA TODAY examined hundreds of “misadministration” and “irregularity” reports from state Departments of Education in Florida, California and Arizona. Such reports, which cover everything from missing test booklets to a teacher’s whispering answers to pupils, do not come to conclusions about whether there was cheating. That determination is usually left up to the school district or the state after an investigation.