August 9, 2022

Cheating at Miami Norland Senior High: The El Paso Solution?

Last May, former FBI Director Louis Freeh painted a grim picture about the extent and the future of corruption at a public corruption conference in Miami.

Miami was the perfect venue as South Florida ranked No. 1 for federal prosecutions of healthcare and other white-collar fraud.

Cheating in High School“It’s in our sports programs,” said Freeh, who went on to say, “It’s in our educational system,” he said, hinting to a school test-cheating probe in Atlanta and now confirmed by South Florida’s own test-cheating episode that is still unfolding at Miami Norland Senior High School.

The Miami-Dade State Attorney, Katherine Fernandez-Rundle, introduced Mr. Freeh and spoke about the difficulties of prosecuting corruption as instances of bribery and test cheating “are never committed at gunpoint,” adding that the greatest challenge is “to prove that a crime actually took place.”

Funny, she actually doesn’t  have to look too hard and too far for evidence that proves the test cheating at Miami Norland Senior High School per the email I sent her on March 3, 2013, which she never responded to, and the final report issued by the Miami-Dade Office of Inspector General that was released on August 26, 2013.

Madame State Attorney, where there’s a will, there’s a way!

I had my own testimony which was corroborated by two teachers and the evidence they had as described in the Miami-Dade OIG Final Report.

Concerning the report itself, it was based on the investigation and findings obtained by two seasoned OIG Special Agents who are retired Miami-Dade County Police Department officers, completed over 15 months with follow-up interviews, following up on other leads, and intense scrutiny by Miami-Dade OIG attorneys.

Special Agent Jorge Lopez retired as a detective in the sex crimes division.

Special Agent Thomas Knigge retired as a police commander.

It was anything but amateur hour for these officers, they have seen it all and then some in their 60 years of combined experience, and they were very diligent and thorough, investigating every angle and lead, and followed the facts and the evidence where they took them to the report’s inevitable conclusion.

They were fully aware of the outcome and the consequences, intended and unintended, of their investigation and report and were constantly mindful of that.

They are truly to be commended for their fine work.

Keep in mind, they are not traditional law enforcement and they lack the leverage they once had while working at MDPD, so when they were constantly met with false denials and phony outrage by the teachers that allegedly gave the students the answers in the face of overwhelming evidence, it was near impossible for them to arrive at the whole truth so as to determine the full extent of the test cheating at Miami Norland Senior High School.

Before the federal misadventure in education in the forms of Race To The Top (RTTT) and the School Improvement Grant (SIG), testing was for the most part a state issue.

The No Child left Behind (NCLB) legislation of 2001 demanded testing and unrealistic accountability and significantly raised the stakes to an odious extent that Republican-dominated states (Virginia and Utah,) expressed displeasure in President George W. Bush’s signature education legislation.

As bad as it was, NCLB demanded testing in the core areas of reading (primarily) and math and left the testing and measurement up to the states in conjunction with the federal benchmark of Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).

Race To The Top is more invasive and expansive in testing and accountability as it mandates the Common Core State Standards and the PARCC testing that goes with it, and other exams that measure “college and career readiness” such as PERT and industry exam certifications.

Florida took the CAPE Act of 2007 and added the industry exams, which is the area of controversy at Miami Norland Senior High School, to school accountability measures in 2009 to conform with its  RTTT Application and ESEA Flexibility Waiver provisions- the “back 800 points” of Florida’s School Grades Program for high schools to gauge “college and career readiness.”

Prior to the 2009-10 school year, industry exam performance was not factored into high school grades.

However, when the federal government partnered with the State of Florida through RTTT and SIG, and the state conformed state laws and State Board of Education Rules pertaining to the areas and measurement of testing in the forms of industry certifications as part of RTTT’s “career and college readiness” mantra for accountability and federal funding purposes akin to Medicaid (a well-established federal and state partnership), it would be logical to conclude that federal oversight and police power would follow federal funding and federal enforcement per any wrongdoing, namely test cheating, as was the case in El Paso, Texas.

After all, it is only fair, if the federal government compounded school accountability woes with more testing, and created a mess in the process of doing so, perhaps the federal government should clean up its own mess.

To its credit, the federal government did just that in El Paso, Texas, and perhaps should do so in South Florida.

In October 2012, Lorenzo Garcia, former superintendent of the El Paso Independent School District, was sentenced by a federal judge to three and a half years in prison for his participation in a conspiracy, along with other district and school administrators, to improve the district’s high-stakes tests scores, as measured by state assessments, by identifying and removing low-performing students from participating in testing.

As part of his plea deal, Mr. Garcia also was ordered to pay $180,000 in restitution and fined $56,500 – the amount he received as a bonus from the district for its success on test scores.

To get to the bottom of the test cheating at Miami Norland Senior High School and to achieve the same resolution and closure for the South Florida community, a similar federal and state investigation would be welcomed and appropriate.

Miami Norland Senior High School differs from the situation in El Paso as students were actually given the answers and, as stated by the interim Inspector General Patra Liu in the Miami-Dade OIG Final Report, “More disturbing, the students who were provided with this cheat sheet or were allowed to use their study guides were taught a lesson that cheating is OK.

The investigation and prosecution in El Paso yielded answers in terms of identifying the scheme and the people involved, as these situations are usually organized conspiracies as also demonstrated in Atlanta and Houston.

Concerning Miami Norland Senior High School, perhaps the people of South Florida can arrive at the truth and obtain answers like the folks in El Paso, Houston, and Atlanta.

Who else was involved at Miami Norland SHS? Did school leadership (department head, assigned assistant principal, and/or principal) know and/or sanction it?  If others had knowledge, at the school and beyond, what did they know and when did they know it?

How did the teachers involved get an advance copy of the tests and the answers to create the cheat sheets?  Did they obtain them, or were they given to them?

Are there other schools where this happened? If so, what is the total price tag in terms of federal and state incentives, as well as the incentives from Certiport, to the schools involved and any federal and state funding given to the District for improved school grades linked to questionable performance on these industry certification exams?

The financial ramifications in terms of payouts to teachers of taxpayer-subsidized federal and state financial incentives demand a complete investigation of these and related events.

The Miami-Dade OIG Final Report stated that, “Miami Norland has benefited in the form of attaining a higher school grade and may have received financial compensation or other benefit resulting from its high pass rate on the industry certification exams” (page 13).

What are these other financial compensations and benefits? Are they more federal taxpayer dollars or monies that are managed and given out by Certiport, the test vendor?

With the assistance of cheating, Miami Norland’s school grade went from a “C” for the 2010-11 school year to an “A” for the 2011-12 school year.

As a result, over $230,000 of combined federal and state incentives were paid out to the teachers at the school.

As I explained in a related article, the FLDOE could have prevented these payouts if they would have assigned Miami Norland Senior High School and “I” for “incomplete” until the resolution of the investigation akin to the case of North Miami Senior High School; regardless, the FLDOE’s $230,000+ lapse of judgment was caused by the cheating facilitated by the teachers, and perhaps persons unknown, at Miami Norland Senior High School.

At a minimum, per an email I sent to personnel in the FLDOE on January 18, 2013, the state payout could have been prevented.

Perhaps the FLDOE’s rationale was North Miami’s case pertained to the FCAT (state exam) and the “front 800 points,” and Miami Norland’s case pertained to industry certification exams regulated by a private vendor (Certiport) and the “back 800 points.”

Whether the points are in the front or in the back is immaterial and neither here nor there. They are both factored into, and equally influence, a school grade and all that comes with it.

North Miami was cleared and the school grade and related financial federal and state incentives were awarded soon thereafter.

Miami Norland’s allegations of cheating where substantiated, but the school grade was awarded eight months before the investigation concluded, and the federal and state incentives were paid out over four to seven months prior to the conclusion of the investigation and the release of the Miami-Dade OIG Final Report.

Therefore, total federal funds (SIG, RTTT) given out due to a grade influenced by cheating was $100,560; the total state funds per the Florida School Recognition Program was between $130,000- $140,000; the total overall combined federal and state incentive funds were $230,560- $240,560.

Cheating is lucrative and it pays.

Each teacher at Miami Norland Senior High School received $1730.41 from all three payouts. If our school filched close to $250,000, which it did, imagine the total cost if other high schools are involved (ETO and non-ETO) – it most likely would be in the millions.

If this is allowed to pass without federal and state action, what will be next? Other schools will have the green light to do the same thing.  Where will it end?

As the teachers and staff at Miami Norland Senior High School received, and spent, the combined federal and state payouts in good faith, they are victims of test cheating as well.

If the State of Florida and/or the federal government should investigate and determine liability, one would think they would, these answers most likely would be obtained and restitution, akin to El Paso, can be made by all of the participants that are identified and found liable for the test cheating at Miami Norland Senior High School (and perhaps beyond).

Trevor Colestock

Trevor Colestock has been the Library Media Specialist and a union steward at Miami Norland Senior High School for the past seven years. Mr. Colestock had been an ESE teacher at Miami Central Senior High School for seven years prior. Mr. Colestock holds an AA in History from Miami-Dade Community College, a BA in History from Florida International University, a Master’s in Library and Information Science from the University of South Florida, and a Specialist in Library and Information Studies from Florida State University.