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New York City
April 2001

A Reputation at Stake: How a Teacher Fought Back Cheating Allegations

by Anita Patil

On an early evening in June 1999, Rebecca Ballantine came home to a scene that she thought only happened in movies: two men in suits, one with a long raincoat and a badge, were waiting in front of her apartment.“ We’re here to talk about the reading tests,” they said.

Ballantine already knew she was being accused of helping her students cheat on standardized tests at IS450 in East Side Community High School, but she was still shaken by the persistence of the men, investigators from the Special Commissioner’s Office for the New York City School District.

A teacher for five years, Ballantine had worked hard prepping her seventh and eighth graders to raise their scores and get the school off the state’s failing list. But the emphasis on tests had become overwhelming, and as a result, Ballantine had been branded a cheater by the chief investigator for the school system, then fired by the superintendent.

At first shocked, and now angry at a system that could mistreat a teacher for doing what she thought was right, Ballantine said she has a much better understanding of the politics and problems of a school system overwhelmed with standardized tests. “It’s hurtful,” she said, her voice still angry. “One day I was the teacher, the next day, I was nothing.”

East Side was placed on the Schools Under Registration Review (SURR) list during 1996-1997 and given two years to meet the state reading and math test goals or be subject to closure; it was required to raise its reading test scores by an average of 17 percent each year in order to get off the list.

Until then, testing had not been in East Side’s philosophy. “That’s not education to me,” said East Side principal Jill Herman. “It’s not about the right or wrong answer, it’s reasoning.” Because East Side did not teach to the tests, its scores fell during 1993-1996, Herman said.

But East Side was forced to change its ways once on the SURR list. Teachers abandoned their own curriculum and drilled for the test, holding students after hours. After two years, scores increased and East Side barely made it off the SURR list in 1998.

Yet investigators from the Special Commissioner’s Office started to question the high scores. A probe by the school’s chief investigator, Edward Stancik, looked at schools throughout New York, naming educators system-wide who cheated. Ballantine was named as one of 52 teachers accused of cheating in a report, “Cheating the Children: Educator Misconduct on Standardized Tests” released in December 1999.

“Humanities teacher Rebecca Ballantine proctored the 7th grade reading test in 1998, and when students had problems, she came over to try to help [them] figure it out,” said the report. It said that she would tell her students either “yes” or “pick another answer.”

Ballantine denied helping the students cheat. “I always wanted to make kids comfortable during the test,” she said. “I would say things like, ‘Oh, you’re doing fine,’ or ‘You know this. We did it in class.’ But I would never say ‘pick another answer.’ I would say, ‘Sit back and check your answers because there’s more time.’ What teacher doesn’t say that?” Her principal agreed, saying some allegations were “absurd.” “Check your answers? That would mean that every single teacher in the city would be guilty!” said Herman.

According to Stancik, the case against Ballantine was one of the strongest. “If I didn’t go with that case, I don’t know what could have been a stronger one,” Stancik said. “We had student testimony, plus the dramatic increase in scores. How can you go from the 9th to 88th percentile in a year?”

Ballantine said the “damning thing was the test score jump.” “When poor kids do good, something must be wrong,” she said angrily

This is the first in a series of articles about Ballantine. Ms. Patil is a student at Columbia University’s School of Journalism.


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