13 December 1999
Our current howler: Expert tease
Synopsis: Bill OReilly wanted to know about cheating on tests. Alas! His show called in an expert.
Teachers are said to aid cheating
Abby Goodnough, The New York Times, 12/8/99
Commentary by Bill OReilly, Nina Rees
The OReilly Factor, Fox News Channel, 12/8/99
Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire
Anemona Hartocollis, The New York Times, 12/12/99
Commentary by Mike Barnicle
Hardball, CNBC, 12/10/99
Commentary by Ben Jones
Hardball, CNBC, 12/9/99
It wasn't Bill O'Reilly's fault. He wanted to know more about
alleged cheating on standardized tests in New York's public schools.
The New York Times had reported the story that morning (December
8); dozens of teachers and two principals had helped students
cheat on standardized tests, according to a New York City school
probe. The motive for the teachers?
ABBY GOODNOUGH: "Their purpose was simply to improve their
own reputations and further their own careers by creating the
illusion that they were doing a good job," Mr. [Edward] Stancik
Stancik was the chief investigator for the New York City schools.
To readers of the incomparable DAILY HOWLER, this story didn't
come as a surprise. Cheating on standardized tests has been endemic
in public schools since the early 1970s, when school systems began
to use the tests to evaluate teachers and principals. In September,
we described this problem in some detail as we critiqued a predictable
60 Minutes report (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/24/99). Anyone
with the slightest clue about public schools would know that there
have been repeated, documented cases of such cheating in public
schools all over the nation, for years. Indeed, whenever we read
about public systems tying these tests to graduation/promotion/pay/evaluationsand
these stories appear in the papers all the timewe know we're
reading about another school system that is gambling with this
Too bad O'Reilly's guest didn't tell him that, but then, O'Reilly's
producers had made a mistakeunwisely, they'd called in an "expert."
It was Nina Rees, "senior analyst on educational policy at
the Heritage Foundation." Here was O'Reilly's ice-breaker:
O'REILLY: You know, I suspect that if this is happening, Miss
Rees, in New York, it's happening in other places as the pressure
on schools to perform is mounting.
O'Reilly's instincts were right on the money. Here was the
REES: Well I certainly hope it's not a widespread practice.
This whole notion of grading schools and attaching carrots and
sticks based on performance is a fairly new concept and in the
past in areas where there has been cheating it's been mainly related
to a school's dismissing their bilingual students or their special
education students in order to show better results. I have
not ever heard of a case where teachers and principals were collaborating
to tell students how to cheat in order to do better on the tests.
So I hope it's an isolated case.
Has not ever heard of a case! Our own analystsand they're
not even "senior"fell right on the floor as if shot.
Over the past two decades, such cases have been repeatedly described
in local newspapers (almost always treated as puzzling anomalies);
we first wrote about such cases, we're sad to say, here in Baltimore
in the early 1980s. (We first became aware of such practices
in 1971.) How widespread is this kind of cheating? Here's how
widespreadfor an extra fee, test companies will actually scan
a school system's answer sheets looking for unusual patterns of
erasures. And why have companies developed that capability? Because
documented cases of systematic erasure have been so widespread
through the years! That's rightteachers simply erase wrong answers
off students' answer sheets, and insert correct answers in their
place! Rees had never heard of thisbut testing companies have
taken measures against it, the practice is so widespread.
Exactly how much of this sort of thing does go on? There's
no way to say for certain, but as of 1987, a comical situation
had developed nationwide; every state in the union was reporting
statewide test scores above the national average! Every state!
The syndrome was dubbed "The Lake Wobegon Effect" by
education activist John Jacob Cannell, named for Garrison Keillor's
mythical town "where the children are all above average."
In 1989, Cannell published a booklet, "How Public Educators
Cheat on Standardized Achievement Tests," which was full
of anecdotes from teachers around the country about cheating that
was done in their schools. Cannell enjoyed his fifteen minutes
of fame, being featured throughout the mainstream press; we ourselves
consulted with news shows on all three networks (including a 60
Minutes report about a celebrated case of cheating in South
Carolina). But attention spans are brief in the biz, and mainstream
news entities don't like these stories. Cannell's work provoked
no systematic reforms, and was soon dropped, never mentioned again.
Last Wednesday, the Time gave the cheating allegations massive
page-one coverage, and the paper has published several follow-up
stories. We couldn't help thinking back to our own youthful days
as Abby Goodnough described the probe:
GOODNOUGH: The investigation also singled out schools that
had reported rapid and steep improvements in student performance,
Mr. Stancik said.
Stancik gave the example of a fourth-grade girl whose reading
score increased from the 12th percentilemeaning she outperformed
only 12 percent of a nationwide sample of studentsto the 81st
percentile when her teacher gave her clues or answers. But the
girl's score plummeted to the 19th percentile the next year, according
to the report.
Our own incomparable work, back in 1981, described this
same sort of pattern for entire grade groups. For text of one
article, click here.
That was eighteen years ago. Since that timealthough we don't
specialize in educational matterswe have seen various published
reports of documented cheating cases. Just yesterday, the Times
alluded to one such case that may play a role in the White House
HARTOCOLLIS: Much the same sort of thing occurred recently
in Texas, where school officials and politicians like Gov. George
W. Bush were brandishing the results of a standardized test to
claim victory over ignorance. There, too, a cheating scandal has
erupted which calls some of the achievements into doubt.
This investigation could conceivably affect the White House
race, depending on how widespread the problem may be.
At any rate, we hope the Times will pursue the New York City
story, and relate it to larger national trends. An aggressive
pursuit of this long-ignored story would provide an invaluable
service. Urban systems love gimmicking scores to persuade the
public that things are getting better. And newspapers love to
print happy-talk stories about Urban School X that is doing so
wellnever asking if the school's test scores might reflect something
other than learning. So are the interests of urban children sold
out by their uncaring friends.
We also hope our old pal Bill will follow this story as it
unfolds in New York. Billpowerful interests will encourage confusion.
Nobody ever likes stories like this. Interview teachers
who reported this cheating. Search Lexis-Nexis for similar tales.
But if you want the truth, don't call an expert. They'll recite
boilerplate about what's wrong with the schools. But the truth
is, they've never been in those schoolsand they don't have a
clue what is happening.
Coming tomorrowthe boys in the limo: Viewers of Sunday's
Meet the Press got an odd account of New Hampshire's campaigning.
More experts: On Friday night, a tabloid talker called
in Michael Medved and Dr. Alvin Poussaint to discuss this topic
on his inventive show Hardball. There was no sign that
either one of them had a clue about this, either. Do experts ever
tell producers that they just don't know about a given
Visit our incomparable archives: Again, click here for
a 1981 article on the odd patterns the New York Times sniffed
out eighteen years later.
Let's play dumbbell: Then again, some folks are expert
at jumping on bandwagons. Mike Barnicle complained about Dumb
Old Bush on Hardball Friday night:
BARNICLE: What I'm talking about is that in each debate and
in each public appearance he seems to be referencing more and
more to stupid things, like, "If Texas were a separate nation
it would be the 11th largest economy, I just read a book about
Dean Acheson," and he's a candidate by rote now more than
he's a candidate by spirit, which McCain is.
Barnicle was reciting the Current Hot Story: Dumb Bush messed
up the debates. Of course, Bush mentioned the Acheson book on
December 2 in response to a direct question by Brit Hume. He mentioned
the book on December 6 in response to a follow-up question by
Judy Woodruff. Maybe they're the ones Mike thinks are stupid.
Or maybe, to be honest, it's Barnicle himself. After complaining
about Bush repeating stupid things, he went ahead and did the
same thing himself:
BARNICLE: That's what I'm talking about earlier, you know,
he would go back to Texas the 11th largest economy, I've just
read a book about Dean Acheson...
Snore. Barnicle himself was repeating a silly thingexcept
no one was making him do it.
LPD II: We thought Richard Belzer had taken the prize
for most stock items in a short Gore soundbite (see THE DAILY
HOWLER, 11/29/99). Thursday night, Ben Jones tightened up Belzer's
JONES: If Al Gore is going to bounce around frenetically 
in his earth tones  and act like Hubert Humphrey  on speed
 then Bradley, all he's got to do is stay cool and it becomes
a manBradleyversus a boyGore . He doesn't even seem to know
who he is , needs a media consultant  to tell him how to
dress  and act . This is a grown man.
Jones flubbed only his closing line, which was supposed to
be, "He needs a feminist to tell him how to act like
a grown man." It's astonishing that performances like those
by Barnicle and Jones are found at the top of our public discourse.