Faking Your Way to Racial Equality

Since the mid-1960s, billions have been spent to close race-related gaps in educational achievement.  While these gaps have been somewhat narrowed, they have remained substantial and seem impervious to nearly all nostrums – everything from early intervention programs such as Head Start to hard-headed businesslike remedies such as firing incompetent teachers.  Now, given decades of disappointment, what's next?

Let me suggest that "a solution" is emerging, but it is not what gap-obsessed egalitarians have in mind.  This "solution" is deception – if genuine equally of outcome is unreachable, instead, provide the illusion of success.  Remarkably, this deceit is often welcomed as if it were the real thing, with little outrage when fraudsters are exposed.

The National Center for Fair and Open Testing argues that teachers illicitly boosting student test scores is endemic.  Such deception is particularly alluring at schools with large populations of underperforming minority students, where the dismal numbers can bring school closings or mass firings.  Such cheating has been documented in Atlanta; Baltimore; and Washington, D.C. as well as in schools in Pennsylvania and New Jersey and elsewhere.  They are, according to the center, just "the tip of the iceberg.

Cheating may simply entail erasing the wrong answers and replacing them with the correct ones.  Less blatant tactics include strongly hinting at the correct answer during the test under the guise of "helping" the puzzled test-taker, using similar test questions in classroom lessons, or just teaching the test and little else.

One teacher has even written a guide for potential cheaters that includes tips to minimize getting caught – for instance, allowing unauthorized extra time by putting a "do not enter" sign on the classroom door.  The Washington Post likewise offers multiple ingenious cheating tactics such as smartphones to forward pictures of exam questions.  Especially effective is to exclude the low performers (notably, students with disabilities and those with limited English) from taking the test.  Another ploy is to prevent expelled or suspended students from taking the test or encouraging the weakest students to drop out or enroll in GED programs prior to the test.

Levels of academic achievement can also be faked by substituting graduation rates for actual learning, a strategy particularly productive when targeting dropout-prone Hispanics and black males.  This tactic is easier than outright cheating and usually perfectly legal.  Everything can be accomplished openly, and those awarding diplomas to the undeserving will be hailed as heroes.  It is no wonder, then, that recent U.S. Department of Education statistics show that high school graduation rates in 2016 have hit an all-time high of 84%.

This fraud is often exposed when administrators just overdo it.  For example, the low-income, largely minority Ballou High School in Washington, D.C. recently reported that 100% of its senior class was accepted to college!  Thought this statistic was celebrated, it ignored the awkward reality that half of these graduates had missed more than three months of school during the previous year.  Moreover, a mere 3% of its seniors met the city standard on D.C.'s reading exam, and hardly any scored proficient on the math exam.

Achieving this "miracle" was not especially difficult.  Chronic truants were permitted no-effort ways to make up their lost school time to expunge their absences and were even awarded full credit for retaking watered down versions of missed classes.  The source of this "miracle" was the school's principal, who manipulated teacher evaluations to punish those who refused to cooperate with the sham.  It was only by luck that a reporter uncovered the deception.

Unfortunately, this example from Washington is just part of the larger pattern of inflated graduation statistics, and, unlike what occurred at Ballou HS, this counterfeiting is totally above board.  One analysis of what it takes to be a high school graduate found that both California and New York recently lowered high school diploma requirements.  Meanwhile, in Tennessee, a third of the state's high school graduates had failed to satisfy the state's graduation requirement but still graduated.  Twenty-one states offer a less academically rigorous degree, but recipients are nevertheless counted as "high school graduates."  In 2015, Los Angeles dropped its once mandatory high school exam, and presto, some 14,000 Los Angeles students who had failed that exam now "earned" a high school diploma.  Particularly devious is a widespread practice called "credit recovery," where a student who missed months of classroom time can in a day or two complete an easy, brief assignment and get full credit.

Of the utmost importance, outsiders cannot be aware of dumbed down textbooks, fluff classroom lecture content, or overly generous grading standards.  Even a responsible teacher may award undeserved grades to avoid trouble or permit illiterates to graduate just to get rid of them.  In short, opportunities to deceive are everywhere, often rational, and difficult to detect.

The Consequences of Successful Fraud

The obvious winners here are politicians and their education appointees, who promised to "turn around failing schools."  Dishonest teachers and school administrators especially benefit where schools embrace a "business model" of financially rewarding high performers.  Provided nobody smells a rat and perpetrators don't overdo it, deception is just what the doctor ordered after a half-century of expensive failure. 

The losers are the students who now possess a piece of paper falsely certifying academic accomplishment.  Yes, a few may recognize the scam, but keep in mind that "getting a diploma" has taken on a magical quality in modern American society.  After all, graduates have attended an imposing ceremony, been decked out in academic gowns, been adored by their picture-taking family, and listened to high-sounding speeches assuring them of future economic success.

The damage goes far deeper than just hoodwinking gullible youngsters and their proud parents.  Particularly revealing is that over time, data show that while high school graduation rates of blacks and whites have substantially narrowed, income differences remain virtually unchanged.  Employers also will quickly learn that these "graduates" cannot perform basic math or write an understandable report and that many "graduates" will likely continue their bad habits (e.g., chronic absenteeism) that had zero costs when they "attended" high school.  Do these freshly employed youngsters expect the dishonest principal to rescue them?

These "graduates" may well figure it out when they realize that nobody will hire them despite their credential or, if hired, that they will be assigned menial jobs more appropriate to a dropout.  Repeating high school work at a community college may be their only option.

Things can get worse.  Egalitarian-minded researchers will "demonstrate" that black youngsters with a high school diploma earn less than their white counterparts, alleged smoking-gun proof of racism and discrimination.  Now, racism demonstrated, the call will be for draconian laws to force employers to hire these "graduates," since, after all, the diploma is prima facie evidence of worthiness.

Faced with court orders (and fines) to hire fake graduates, businesses might relocate, ship the work overseas, or hire skilled immigrants.  In any case, pools of minority youngsters who are unemployable despite their high school or even college diplomas will be left behind.  Alas, few will admit the obvious: their joblessness is a result of youngsters escaping the effort necessary to earn a real diploma.

Will this charade end?  Might the recipients of fake certificates wake up and sue schools for deception?  Probably not, given that diploma recipients are apparently satisfied with this fakery.  Thousands of public officials and professional educators are also motivated to sustain this gravy train, regardless of the damage inflicted on these youngsters.  And what white official will demand an end to policies that help disadvantaged blacks earn a degree?  Perhaps most troubling, for countless public officials and professional educators, this fakery qualifies as progress in the quest for racial equality.

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