Petersburg’s School Cheating Scandal

As if the City of Petersburg didn’t have enough problems recovering from its fiscal meltdown, now it has a school cheating scandal on its hands. The Virginia Department of Education discovered a suspicious pattern of answers in Standards of Learning (SOL) tests indicating that test-takers were coached to switch from incorrect answers to correct answers. Reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

Some students at A.P. Hill Elementary School in Petersburg had to raise a hand after answering questions on state accountability tests last spring for a proctor to check their work. If the answer was correct, they could move on to the next question. If it was not, the students were told to check their work.

Others made rapid-fire corrections to wrong answers within minutes before submitting computerized tests, data show.

Five staff members who administered the tests have lost their jobs. One employee, who begged to be removed from testing duties, likened the test results rigging to the Atlanta cheating scandal.

Bacon’s bottom line: Needless to say, Petersburg school children are not well served when people believe they are performing better than they actually are. The only beneficiaries of cheating are the school staff, who win accolades for improved test performances.

Now, let’s go back to the previous post about the decline in the percentage of African-American students enrolled in America’s most prominent universities, and the explanation offered by the New York Times:

Experts say that persistent underrepresentation often stems from equity issues that begin earlier. Elementary and secondary schools with large numbers of black and Hispanic students are less likely to have experienced teachers, advanced courses, high-quality instructional materials and adequate facilities….

That’s the standard narrative, and it is woefully misleading. I discussed in the previous post how the biggest disadvantage suffered by African-American students is the much higher probability of being raised in fatherless families. All too often, they suffer a double handicap in attending failing schools. But why are their schools failing? Is it a matter of racism, discrimination, or unequal distribution of resources?

Petersburg, which I believe is the poorest-performing school district in Virginia, spent $11,179 per student on average in 2010 (the most recent data I could find), just a hair shy of the $11,316 state average. Of course Petersburg has more than its share of disadvantaged and special-needs students, but it’s not as if the school district has been living on a penurious budget.

If Petersburg students have less experienced teachers, fewer advanced courses, aging school buildings, and lesser-quality school materials, could one of the reasons be maladministration? We know the city government is a fiscal disaster. We know there’s staff-organized cheating in the schools, and that the cheating was caught by the Virginia Department of Education, not the school administration. Is it not possible that Petersburg has a severely dysfunctional school administration, and that inept management has compounded the challenges of poverty?

These are the questions we should be asking. Instead, we’re focusing on the statues of Civil War generals. Tear down every Civil War statue, you won’t help one Petersburg school child. Tear down the statues of every slave holder, and you won’t help one Petersburg school child. Tear down the statues of all those who held views that would be considered racist today, including Abraham Lincoln, and you won’t help one Petersburg school child. The obsession with statuary reflects a doubling-down on the paradigm of irredeemable American racism even Great Society institutions crumble around us. Innocent black school children are the most tragic victims of this blindness.

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12 responses to “Petersburg’s School Cheating Scandal

  1. Two thoughts:
    1. If you are saying “all school districts inhabited by lots of low-income African-Americans have poor administration”, it seems like an awfully unusual coincidence.
    2. Moreover, I don’t know of any way of proving (besides the occasional scandal) that school district A has worse administration than school district B. You could say that A’s bad results show it has worse administration, but it seems equally plausible that other causes (fatherless families, more resources diverted to special education in low-income districts, effects of poverty on parenting, etc) are a more prominent cause- especially since the latter causes tend to by definition exists in almost all similar districts, while bad administration might be less widespread.

    • Mike, I’m not saying that “all school districts inhabited by lots of low-income African-Americans have poor administration.” But African-Americans live disproportionately in inner cities where the politics and machinery of government leave a lot to be desired. Chicago. Baltimore. Philadelphia. I could go on.

      As for Petersburg, I doubt it’s made news outside of Virginia, but the city is digging its way out of a catastrophic revenue shortfall caused by inept fiscal administration. The city is a basketcase.

  2. You’re conflating again… statues have nothing to do with cheating on tests.

    it adds nothing to the dialogue other than to divert attention from the real issue.

    Henrico schools have had the following schools denied accreditation: Glen Lea, Montrose and Ratcliffe elementary schools, along with Elko, Fairfield, John Rolfe and L. Douglas Wilder middle schools were denied accreditation by the Virginia Department of Education.”

    how can one of the best school districts in Virginia have the same problems that Petersburg has … ???

    Give Henrico credit for not cheating…. but they too have schools that have been denied accreditation.

    so why is that? does Henrico have “bad” teachers or “bad parents” also?

    don’t be yammering about statues.. that’s just a diversion..

    • I guess you can call it a diversion if you want, Larry. As usual with so many most of your posts, it’s merely argument by assertion.

      In 1967, Justin Hayward commented,

      “But we decide which is right
      And which is an Illusion?”

      I think he had it right. You could look it up.

      • I don’t have much tolerance for cheating but in terms of Administration , do we say that Henrico’s Administration is bad also because it has about 20 schools that are not fully accredited?

        what explains Henrico having some of the best schools and some of the worst in the same district?

      • it’s more conflation and diversion and …misrepresentation because they’re ONLY talking about the folks who fought to defend slavery – not the slave holders…

        You guys are suffering from white-mans disease.. you remember history from a white man’s perspective not the black mans.. which is partially understandable but what’s not is that you won’t admit it.

        Statues that went up during Jim Crow at the same time blacks were being lynched is not history the white guys want to remember but it’s history black folks cannot forget. You have to reconcile that are admit we’re never going to heal..

        and Jim demonstrates it by bringing it up again – in the middle of another subject.. not good.

  3. In total fairness to the Petersburg community, cheating by school administrations and staff is not peculiar to poor districts like Petersburg. See http://www.nytimes.com/1992/01/01/education/cheating-scandal-jars-a-suburb-of-high-achievers.html.

    The Cherokee elementary school in the Times story was in a part of town that commanded a rather high real estate premium over the rest of Lake Forest, mainly because of Cherokee’s “reputation” for academic excellence. I was totally naive about what this really meant. I had to learn that those wealthy parents may not have been as concerned about the cheating as you might think. During one of the hearings before the school board, one male parent got up and, to my surprise, asked what would happen to his property value if they fired the [previously] respected principal.

    Petersburg probably does not have this element of the problem in the equation, but the incentive on the staff/school administration side of the problem is virtually the same: feathering of one’s own monopolistic nest.

  4. I don’t have much tolerance for cheating but in terms of Administration , do we say that Henrico’s Administration is bad also because it has about 20 schools that are not fully accredited?

    what explains Henrico having some of the best schools and some of the worst in the same district?

  5. re: ” The Cherokee elementary school in the Times story was in a part of town that commanded a rather high real estate premium over the rest of Lake Forest, mainly because of Cherokee’s “reputation” for academic excellence. I was totally naive about what this really meant. I had to learn that those wealthy parents may not have been as concerned about the cheating as you might think. ”

    well ..yes.. there is actually a company called Niche.. that specializes in fairly fully characterizing the qualities of schools AND the EXACT boundaries of the neighborhood it serves as well as the prices of the homes in that neighborhood.

    take a look: https://www.niche.com/k12/d/henrico-county-public-schools-va/

    the question I’ve always had and have asked frequently here how can one school district with one set of administrators ..have some really good schools and some really bad schools in the same district – like Henrico does.

    do we think “bad teachers” are concentrated in some schools unbeknownst to the administrators? How about “bad parents”? Do we think the “bad parents” tend to gravitate to certain neighborhoods?

    so what does explain these disparities?

  6. They weren’t as devious as Norfolk who just diverted students from even taking the tests … “recycled” was the clever term used.

  7. I agree with Larry the G. Cheating in school is always wrong, but what the hell does this have to do with Confederate statues?

    • The Confederate statue controversy is a distraction from issues that matter.

      Here’s what former Gov. Doug Wilder said in an op-ed this morning: “Will the removal of statues change any of this, we welcome as some might find it? Will it provide our young people a more recognizable version of the American Dream?”

      That sentiment is identical to the one I expressed.

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