Lessons From A School Cheating Scandal, Two Decades Later

A local newspaper investigation in Atlanta uncovered widespread cheating in standardized testing, which school officials were indicted for last week. But almost 25 years ago, a doctor in West Virginia coal country uncovered a similar scandal after noticing that standardized test scores in his community were suspiciously high. Host Michel Martin speaks to Dr. John Cannell about his report back then, and other incidents he has been following since.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And now for additional perspective, we are joined by Dr. John Cannell. He is a medical doctor, but he helped uncover a standardized testing scandal in West Virginia in the 1980s. Welcome to you. Thank you so much for joining us.

DR. JOHN CANNELL: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: You know, as I mentioned, you are a medical doctor. You're not an educator; you were not involved in the schools. What caught your attention? What made you suspicious?

CANNELL: Well, one day West Virginia announced that all 55 of its counties were above the national average in their standardized elementary achievement test scores. And part of my mind said, if West Virginia is above average, what state is below? - because we had some of the poorest people in the country. So I had my nurse and X-ray technician and my lab technician call all 50 states, and tell the State Department of Education they were thinking of moving to that state - Georgia or South Carolina or Tennessee or Alabama. And we would get this glossy brochure back, that showed how high the test scores were in that state. And what I discovered was called the Lake Wobegon effect by Secretary William Bennett, and that's where all 50 states were testing above the national average. So I self-published a little manual - a little booklet about that.

And then later on, I came to realize that the reason all 50 states were testing above the national average is because there was widespread cheating in the public schools in the United States, originating with the state superintendent of schools, and then filtering down to the county superintendent of schools; and then to the administrators, and then to the teachers.

MARTIN: Was there an a-ha moment, when you just realized what was going on? Because it's the kind of thing that - if you don't mind my saying this - you just don't want to believe. You really don't.

CANNELL: Right.

MARTIN: So what - was there just a moment when you thought, it has to be this?

CANNELL: Yeah. And the a-ha moment, for me, came when Morley Safer - from "60 Minutes" - came to interview me. And somehow, "60 Minutes" had gotten hold of test-preparation materials that schools in all 50 states use for their standardized tests. And when I looked over the test-preparation materials, I realized that the people who publish these test preparation materials - the academicians at respected universities all around the country - have these side businesses of making test-preparation materials. And what they do is, they lace the test-preparation materials with the actual test questions from the tests. So anybody who uses the test-preparation materials will have seen the test questions and answers in advance.

MARTIN: One would imagine that when you published your findings, your being outside of the education field, that your analysis was not received warmly. Would that be a fair assessment?

CANNELL: That would be correct. It was not received warmly, but the U.S. Department of Education financed a study that two years after my report, confirmed what I found. And the educators, though, despite the widespread publicity about the cheating, were able to ignore it and continue the cheating.

MARTIN: You know, Doctor, can I just ask you your - kind of overall philosophy about this? There are a lot of people who feel that this is happening because there's just too much pressure on teachers and administrators - just all up and down the line - on testing; that this high-stakes testing - is what it's called - is just bad for education, and bad for kids. Do you have an opinion about that?

CANNELL: Yes. I mean, there was high-stakes testing before No Child Left Behind legislation. No Child Left Behind legislation made it higher-stakes testing. But the idea that it's high-stakes testing is causing the cheating, is like me filing a tax return and saying that a high-stakes income is why I cheated on my tax return. It makes no sense. High-stakes testing environment is a fact of life, but it doesn't justify cheating.

MARTIN: Dr. John Cannell uncovered fraud in standardized testing back in the late 1980s. He joined us from San Luis Obispo, California. Thank you so much for joining us, Dr. Cannell.

CANNELL: Well, thanks for having me.

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