August 12, 2022

Who says cheating doesn’t pay?!

For the first time in its existence, the Office of the Inspector General for Miami-Dade County documented and substantiated an instance of test cheating in Miami-Dade County Public Schools, Florida’s largest school district and the nation’s fourth largest school district.

The annual Office of the Inspector General’s (OIG) Annual Report for fiscal year (FY) 2012-2013, issued on August 21, 2013, summarizes the investigation of the cheating on the industry exams (Adobe Photoshop and Dreamweaver), which are accountability exams per the “back 800 points” for high school grades as measured by Florida’s School Grades Program, at Miami Norland Senior High School.

The OIG Final Report, issued on August 26, 2013, provides disturbing details on the extent of the test cheating, as summarized by the Miami Herald article that ran three days later.

However, the Herald article scratches the surface and fails to mention the serious, and potential, implications of this affair in terms of size, scope, and monetary fraud.  This is typical of that paper as every scandal involving the school district  is shape-shifted and minimized and the slightest accolade blown up and glorified.  They truly have the “nothing to see here folks” attitude.

As I have direct knowledge of these events and processed the complaint with the Miami-Dade OIG, I offer the reader a true accounting of how the investigation evolved and the very important issues posed.

On April 4, 2012, around 1:00 pm, I had a conversation with Mr. Willie J. Gant, a vocational teacher and co-worker at Miami Norland Senior High School. He told me he and another vocational teacher, Mr. Guy Halligan, had evidence of cheating per an online industry exam, the Adobe Photoshop certification exam which is computer-based, during the school year, and he had suspicions of last year’s exams (maybe Adobe perhaps Office, am not certain), in relation to the school grading system, the “back 800 points.”

He told me that a student failed the Adobe Photoshop certification exam three times during the year and recently passed the exam, a 45 minute exam, in 8 minutes. Mr. Gant went on to tell me that the student, and later other students, told him that the test administrator, Mr. Emmanuel Fleurantin, another vocational teacher, gave them the answers, and that other students who have previously failed likewise passed.

Mr. Gant came to me as I am an active union steward, and he knew I was working with the Office of the Auditor General for the State of Florida, and other entities I am currently not at liberty to disclose, on their investigations pertaining to the District and the school, and he wanted me to handle it.

We believed this was done to help the school get any and all points based on industry certification exams per the “back 800 points” per FLDOE’s school grading system as our reading and math scores were below average (19% the previous year). Because of these points, the school grade went from an initial “F” to a “C” the previous year (2010-11 school year).

As the union tends to collude with the school district, as confirmed by my dealings with them per my grievance on the bogus IPEGS training and potential teacher certification fraud as explained in my last article, I spoke with investigators with the Office of the Auditor General for the State of Florida as I was already cooperating with them in their investigations concerning professional development fraud, teacher certification fraud, and my school’s noncompliance in terms of incomplete and nonexistent Individual Professional Development Plan’s and fabricated and fraudulent teacher observations as referenced in Report No. 2013-108.

After my conversation with the Auditor General’s staff, I drafted a complaint to give to the Miami-Dade OIG, confirmed the information with Mr. Gant, who showed me cheat sheets and other materials, and I sent it to their office by certified mail on April 20, 2012.

I visited the Miami-Dade OIG’s office about a week later, and they told me they wanted Mr. Gant and Mr. Halligan to come in.  The Auditor General’s staff wanted them to come in and present their evidence and give sworn statements as well.

Coach (Cleve) Roberts, the Designated Building Steward,  and I spoke with Mr. Gant and Mr. Halligan privately and in a meeting after school in late April, and we told them individually and together that they had to come forward and testify and present their evidence (statements, cheat sheets) to the Auditor General’s Office and to the Miami-Dade OIG. They did not want to and were scared to do so; very terrified. We told them that they had no choice, lest they be seen as covering it up and part of the conspiracy, and I reminded them per School Board Policy and state law and ethics that they had to.

After speaking with officials from both agencies, Mr. Gant made plans to leave the school (he went to Ronald Reagan Senior High School) and Mr. Halligan resigned and retired (he became a full-time minister) because they were both afraid of reprisal.

As both agencies handled this and my other complaint (bogus training and certification fraud per federal Race To The Top professional development funds), they chose to divide the two complaints amongst themselves: The Auditor General of Florida agreed to handle the bogus training and certification fraud per RTTT professional development funds and they investigated  and issued a report in my favor; the Office of Inspector General for Miami-Dade County agreed to handle the test cheating; came out to the school and questioned administrators, teachers, and students; and issued the final report confirming to that Mr. Gant, Mr. Halligan, and I were correct as a large amount of cheating was confirmed among two teachers, and that the Florida Department of Education is also investigating.

The number of students who cheated is enormous. Mr. Gant told OIG investigators that 17 students passed the industry exams for the 2010-11 school year and the number jumped to 452 for the 2011-12 school year.  For that school year, 26% of the student body was reading on grade level as measured by the FCAT Reading test, yet 452 students passed these highly technical exams between 175- 241 points above the national average and completed the exams 8-22 minutes below the national average depending on the exam.

This sudden burst of achievement and outstanding leap in passed industry certification exams had to undoubtedly influence and help improve the school’s grade from a “C” to an “A.”

Furthermore, as the test cheating scandals in Atlanta and Houston have been directed by school administrators, was this the case at Miami Norland Senior High School?  There is no proof, but I am suspicious as I can hardly believe two teachers did this all by themselves. After all, school administrators have a lot more to lose in terms of salary and potential promotions.

Given the jump in school grades from other ETO high schools in 2012 from the previous school year, one has to wonder if the same thing has happened at other schools.  There is no proof of that, but given the pressure of the state’s accountability system, along with federal pressures from Race To The Top and the ESEA Flexibility Waivers, on school administrators and teachers to perform and improve, combined with state and federal incentive money, the thought crosses a lot of minds.

Would an examination and investigation of student testing records from these industry exams for the 2011-12 school year, as well as the 2012-13 school year, show statistical cheating at other ETO high schools as was the case at Miami Norland Senior High School?

Given the financial incentives involved in terms of federal and state monetary payouts, it may not be too far-fetched and be a strong possibility, thus warranting a thorough and exhaustive investigation by state and federal authorities in the areas of multiple counts of using a computer to commit and perpetrate a fraud, wire fraud, defrauding an out of state corporation (Certiport, the test vendor), and defrauding the State of Florida and the federal government and the taxpayers thereof.

These tests were very unsecure, had little to no oversight, and the temptation was certainly there.  The payouts in combined known state and federal incentive funds, and other financial incentives we may not know of, shows that the price of cheating can indeed be lucrative, as well as costly to the taxpayer.

The federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) money, $500 per Miami Norland Senior HS teacher, was paid out on January 25, 2013, and is listed on check statements as “Performance Pay.”  This was paid out by virtue of the school receiving an “A,” for a grand total of $60,000.

The state money, Florida School Recognition Program, was paid out to all Miami Norland teachers on March 22, 2013, in the amount of $892.41 (after benefits, etc.) per teacher, and is listed on check statements as “FL School Recognition.”  Custodians, part-timers got a way lesser amount per the earlier email. This was also paid out for the school receiving an “A.”

On the paycheck for Friday, April 19, 2013, all the teachers at Miami Norland Senior High School received $338 per Avenue A of Race To The Top (federal) performance pay.

The vocational teachers that enabled the test cheating may have received funds from Avenue C, individual exam performance.

Avenue A is awarded for the school grade going up a letter grade or an “A.” The total payout was $40,560 (120 teachers X $338).

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

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.

For my part, I tried, but unfortunately failed, to stop at least the state payout.

As the District had the federal School Improvement Grant and Race To The Top grant dollars in its possession, they paid it out, and I knew they would not heed my concerns.

However, the state paid out the funds from the Florida School Recognition Program to all Florida school districts after February 1, 2013. See Miami Norland Senior High School FSRP Distribution Plan.

To prevent the payout to my school and save taxpayer dollars, I sent an email to personnel in FLDOE on January 18, 2013, and warned them about releasing these funds to my school, telling them “the school has moved to distribute these funds based on a grade compromised by the activities involving CBT testing (Dream Weaver, Adobe Photoshop) per the back 800 points. School administration has a deadline of January 25 to give it to the District (Office of School Improvement), then on to payroll. It would be chaos indeed if we collected that within a month, then if it had to be repaid as the school grade would most likely be invalidated or revised due to these events.”

These funds were paid out anyways as FLDOE personnel told me, in a phone conversation the same day, the investigation was ongoing and not finalized. However, the state has held school grades before due to suspected cheating, as was the case with North Miami Senior High School which was assigned an “I” for “Incomplete” until the investigation determined there was no cheating and they received a “B” last May.

Suspected FCAT cheating and irregularities at North Miami Senior High School was suspected at the end of the 2011-2012 school year, an investigation occurred, and an “I” for “Incomplete” was issued and all federal and state payouts were held until the investigation was resolved. Last May, as the investigation was resolved in the school’s favor, the school grade was changed to a “B” and all the teachers received their federal and state payouts soon thereafter.

At Miami Norland Senior High School, there was proven, not suspected cheating as in North Miami’s case, cheating per student and teacher testimony and evidence in the form of cheat sheets and confessions. The only questions were the size and the scope of the cheating and who were all the people involved.

The Auditor General of Florida and the Miami-Dade Office of Inspector General was in possession of this evidence as of early May 2012 and the Florida Department of Education knew soon thereafter as I confirmed with FLDOE personnel over the phone in September 2012, which was three months before the high schools grades were released in December2012.

If the Florida Department of Education handled the case at Miami Norland Senior High School the same way that it did at North Miami Senior High School, the “A” grade would not have been awarded in December 2012 and the payouts would not have occurred; rather, Miami Norland Senior High School would have received an “I” in the summer of 2012 and when the investigation concluded on Monday, August 26, 2013, the “I” would have been changed to an “F” and none of the $230,000-$240,000 in combined federal and state incentive funds would have been disbursed.

Who says cheating doesn’t pay?!

This whole situation was made possible by the recent federal misadventure in education called Race To The Top.  As the State of Florida was in dire straits, the state lapped it up, provisions and all, especially the provisions pertaining to the exams linked to industry examinations for purposes of “college and career readiness,” the very tests that some students cheated on at Miami Norland Senior High School.

The federal government exacerbated the pressure of school accountability in our schools and provided low-hanging fruit (monetary incentives) to perform. Prior to RTTT, Florida had isolated cases of FCAT cheating. Now, with these and other federally mandated exams (PERT) and the Common Core exams (namely PARCC) in the mix, combined with other incentives and the pressure to produce, it will only get worse.

This is precisely, along with other reasons, that the Tenth Amendment was placed in the U.S. Constitution. Education is the province, and under the purview, of the states. The Race To The Top and School Improvement Grants are misnomers at best and failures at worse, creating schemers and cheaters along the way and bringing misery to students and teachers.

If we only adhered to and followed the Tenth Amendment, we would save the states and school districts the trouble from boondoggles like RTTT, SIG, and Common Core; students and teachers the pain and embarrassment following cheating scandals; and taxpayers across the board money with real student achievement to boot.

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.