Avoid Cheating Scandals: Opt-Out of the STAR Test


 The superintendent was known “as a person who got results . . .  and had a strong relationship with the business elite.”

The focus on test scores made the superintendenta favorite of the national education reform movement.

“Principals and teachers were frequently told by [the superintendent] and subordinates that excuses for not meeting [testing] targets would not be tolerated.”

“She said teachers were under constant pressure from principals who feared they would be fired if they did not meet the testing targets set by the superintendent.”

“[The superintendent] was known to rule by fear.”

During the superintendent’s tenure, “90 percent of the principals” were replaced.

“Teachers and principals whose students had high test scores received tenure and thousands of dollars in performance bonuses. Otherwise, as one teacher explained, it was ‘low score out the door.'”

One teacher explained a reason she had kept silent so long was that,  “she could not afford to lose her job.”

The superintendent “was a fearsome presence who would accept no excuses . . . rewarding principals and teachers from schools with high test scores by seating them up front . . . while low scorers were shunted aside to the bleachers.”

The superintendent was also known as someone who was “aloof from parents, teachers and principals. The district spent $100,000 a year for a securitydetail.”

“At public meetings, questions had to be submitted beforehand for screening.”

What made the superintendentuntouchable” were “strong ties to local business leaders.”

A teacher said, “I can’t eat, I can’t sleep, my kids want to talk to me, I ignore them. . . . I don’t have the mental energy.”

All of these quotes were taken from the New York Times article “Ex-Schools Chief in Atlanta Is Indicted in Testing Scandal” published yesterday concerning the indictment of Dr. Beverly L. Hall, superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools during the testing scandal that erupted in September of 2011. According to the article, she was charged on March 29, 2013 with “racketeering, theft, influencing witnesses, conspiracy and making false statements.” She could face 45 years in prison for her actions.

As horrible as the scandal in Atlanta was and still is (the effects on the students who’s scores were adjusted will be felt for the rest of their educational career, at least), enough has been written about that terrible situation. But not enough has been written about the actions of our Superintendent Dr. Casey Wardynski, superintendent of Huntsville City Schools.

As you can see from the links above, nearly everything that was written yesterday about Dr. Hall in Atlanta could also be written about Dr. Wardynski here in Huntsville. About the only thing missing is the amount of time Dr. Hall was in charge of APS and the sheer size of that district as compared to Huntsville.

A Cautionary Tale

Dr. Hall created a culture in Atlanta where principals and teachers were under constant pressure to demonstrate the growth of their students as measured by a standardized test (in their case it was the “Criterion-Referenced Competency Test,” which appears to be similar to the Alabama Reading and Mathematics Test–ARMT.) Dr. Wardynski uses the STAR Enterprise test as his primary vehicle to evaluate teachers and their performance.

Dr. Hall created a culture of fear in Atlanta. From nearly the month of his tenure, Dr. Wardynski has striven to create this same culture of fear.

Dr. Hall developed a system that rewarded teachers financially if their students scored well on the CRCT. Dr. Wardynski has developed a system that rewards teachers financially if their students score well on the STAR. At Westlawn alone, Wardynski has budgeted $355,392.00 this year alone in incentives for good test results.

Incentivizing Growth

Dr. Hall punished, threatened, and fired teachers who’s students did not meet her expectations. Dr. Wardynski has punished, threatened, fired teachers, and closed entire schools that did not meet his expectations.

Dr. Hall stood aloof from parents and spent ridiculous amounts on security for herself. Dr. Wardynski stands aloof from parents, refuses to answer questions, increases his own personal security while ignoring the safety of our students.

In short, the environment that led to one of the worst cheating scandals in public school history, is exactly the same environment that Dr. Wardynski has created here in Huntsville.

The culture and environment of Huntsville City Schools is just as ripe for a cheating scandal as Atlanta.

Cheating Is Easy

As has been documented by FairTest: The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, cheating on standardized tests is both widespread and easy.

There have been documented cases of cheating in 37 states as well as the District of Columbia, including Alabama. This number does not include incidents of “suspicious test scores” that have been documented by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. This report doesn’t include the amazing turn-around that Dr. Cathy McNeil exclaimed over last month by saying, “I’ve never seen growth like this. It’s phenomenal.

As I point out last month, when test scores are too good to be true, they quite simply aren’t.

In addition FairTest documents 52 ways that teachers, principals and superintendents have cheated on standardized testing in the past. The list covers pre-test, during the test, and post-test cheating. In short, it is ridiculously easy to cheat on a test if a teacher, administrator, or superintendent is sufficiently motivated to do so.

And we have created an environment where at least two of those three groups are sufficiently motivated.

Teachers and principals are financially rewarded for good test scores. They are punished for bad test scores, including termination. In a city that is living in constant fear of layoffs from sequestration, losing even a $37,000 a year position can be devastating to a family’s finances.

This is what Dr. Wardynski and our inept board of education has brought to our city. While we’ll never be the news story that Atlanta has become, what happened there, I assure you, has already happened here or will soon. (The amazing turn around, and the fudging of the numbers at the district level at Westlawn would be the best place to start looking, but it clearly isn’t the only place where cheating is possible or likely.)

Opt-Out of the STAR Test

So what can we do?

It’s simple: Opt-out of the STAR Test.

The STAR test is not a state mandated test. It is not a federally mandated test. Your child’s scores on that test will not help them get into a better college. And frankly, colleges are beginning to discount testing performance more and more anyway. As a teacher at the post-secondary level, I can tell you first hand that having a student who can perform well on the ACT or the COMPASS test (an entrance exam produced by ACT) does not ensure that a student will perform well in college. My department, for just one example, has found that the students who did well enough on the COMPASS test to place directly into college-level courses like English Composition I were less likely to do well in ENG101 than students who didn’t pass the COMPASS and took ENG093 Developmental English before taking ENG101.

It seems that other colleges are seeing similar results as nearly 850 of them are beginning to discount test scores during the admissions process.

But even if your child is considering attending a college that does require ACT/SAT test scores as a part of the admissions process, there is still no reason for them to be taking the STAR test. Performing well on the STAR test has no impact whatsoever on your child’s grades or on your child’s scores on the ACT/SAT.

In short, there is no reason whatsoever for your child to be taking this test.

It might make you feel good to know that your 3rd grader is reading on a 6th grade level, you should know that statement is totally misleading. Understanding some of the vocabulary that an 6th grader understands does not mean that your 3rd grader has the ability to comprehend at the same level as a 6th grader.

There is no educational benefit to your child to spend up to a day a week, every week preparing to take the STAR test.

That time would be much better spent reading, writing, examining mathematical theorems, or researching the latest advances in rocket science that our neighbors at NASA are developing to take us to Mars.

The STAR test means absolutely nothing to your child. The only reason it is being administered three, four, five, or how many ever times Dr. Wardynski is going to require it to be administered this year is to rank and punish your child’s teacher.

Wouldn’t it make more sense for your child to have spent that time, oh I don’t know, learning something?

If you agree, tell your child’s teacher and principal that you opt-out, and that you instead want your child to spend more time learning rather than testing.

Heck, we might even manage to keep Dr. Wardynski out of jail as a result.

See, I don’t hate the man.

"Children see magic because they look for it." --Christopher Moore, Lamb: The Gospel according to Biff, Jesus' childhood pal.


  1. When I read that NYT article earlier today, all those statements about Dr. Hall jumped out at me, too, and I had the same thought you did: This is Dr. Wardynski.

    Over and over, I keep hearing certain people say what a great job Wardynski is doing, but 90% of the people saying these things have one glaring thing in common: They no longer have children in school. Tommy Battle, Jennie Robinson, Phil Riddick, Gen. Pillsbury, on and on and on. I guess if you don’t have to personally deal with the consequences of what this man is doing, it’s easy to put on your cheerleading uniform and go along with the euphoria.

    The day of reckoning is coming. Hopefully, it will come sooner rather than later.

    1. For some of these kids, the reckoning can’t come soon enough. Their academic experience is being ruined, and they are losing time they’ll never be able to recover.

    2. It was a bit eerie wasn’t it, Ben?

      I hope that the end comes soon as well, but I agree with Witsend that it can’t come soon enough.

  2. Renaissance Learning, Inc., when used appropriately, is the most effective tool for individualized, continuous-progress, differentiated education available in the field of education.
    In the year 2000, Mr. Jim Black guided a group of enthusiastic teachers at Lincoln Elementary School to a training session on the use of Accelerated Math. Most of us had successfully utilized Accelerated Reader to improve reading comprehension and to challenge students to increase student engagement in reading.
    From that time on, Accelerated Math became an important tool in my classrooms, providing data and strategies for teaching math to students in first, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth grades.
    Every student was pretested, assigned lessons on objectives that the student had not yet mastered, and taught individually, in small groups, and in whole class settings as needed. The computerized program maintained all data relating to individual, group, class, and school progress. For the first time, students were able to study and learn for mastery at the most beneficial pace for each of them.
    As the math teacher, I was able to seek out and apply strategies involving kinesthetic, tactile, musical, art, science-related, social-studies related, and more, so that the students developed a love of mathematics.
    Unfortunately, during my final year in public school, a very antagonistic administrator claimed there was no funding to continue the Accelerated Math program. I offered to pay for the purchase of the program out of my own personal funds and was told that it was illegal for teachers to purchase materials for their classrooms. Later, I found out that the money had been available after all; but the person was simply working to impede my students’ scores, which had been the highest in the school previously.
    At this time, I am very thankful that I have retired from public education. However, if there is a private school or a home school organization that would welcome a very dedicated and enthusiastic math teacher who will insure that the students increase in math ability and enjoyment, I would appreciate if they would contact me at kidstrek@earthlink.net.
    Currently, I am conducting Kids Trek programs once or twice a month in the public library and am working with quite a few families in a new program called Brain Trek. Kids Trek is free, open to the public, and geared for all ages. Children must have adult partners. Our next program is Kids Trek Creative Writing on Saturday, April 20, from 2 to 4 p.m., in the Huntsville Public Library auditorium.

    1. Ms. Williams,

      Thanks for the information you’ve share with us. The key phrase in your post is, unfortunately, “when used appropriately.”

      While the STAR test is a product of Renaissance Learning, it is complete separate from AR and I assume AM, although I’m unfamiliar with that product.

      It is not being used to evaluate students in an effective way here in Huntsville. It is instead being used to evaluate teachers.

      This is why I’m calling for parents to opt out of this test.

      Thanks for your work with gifted students.

  3. it is very much used to punish teachers. if the growth is not what they “think it sould be” the teacher is then put under a microscope and micromanaged right down to how they have their classrooms arranged and every minute of time in their classroom. in order to further pad the systems numbers, they are doing everything they can to pass students to the next grade. even if the student is on the cusp of failing kindergarten, 1st or 2nd (low 60’s), the system will not let them be held back even if the parent requests it. madness.

    1. Those parents should threaten to sue. The district cannot make that decision without parental consent.

      Madness indeed.

      Thank you for sharing your perspective.

  4. You are absolutely correct that the STAR Reading and Math tests and test results are not being applied correctly.
    That was one of the other ways in which a certain administrator attempted to impair my students’ success. When the administrator sat in the computer room eating fried chicken and slurping soda loudly through a straw and staring at students to the point that the children complained to me about how uncomfortable the person had made them feel, it was obvious the tests were not valid.
    In addition, since all students were required to begin at the same time and most of the computers repeatedly jammed, the results should have been discarded.
    There were also very strong indications that adults were taking the tests using the logins of certain students. For example, a student who had not learned to count to 20 and could not add or subtract at all somehow managed to score at a fourth-grade level. That incident received complaints from a number of teachers who knew the situation.
    STAR Reading and Math tests are designed to assist the teachers in placing students at appropriate learning levels. The instructions specify very clearly that the results are to be considered in conjunction with classroom progress and teacher observation.
    To gauge the quality of a teacher’s ability to instruct in reading or math through the outcome of the STAR tests is completely erroneous.
    Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Renaissance Learning company refused to allow public schools to abuse their programs in these ways?
    The telephone number of Renaissance Learning, Inc., is 1-800-338-4204. I plan to call the company on Monday to discuss possibilities of my purchasing use of the Accelerated Math component for use with home school groups. The quality of the program is of enough value to me that I am willing to pay the cost out of my own pocket so that families will have access to this highly effective tool.
    Accelerated Math actually works better, in my opinion, without the connection to the STAR test.

  5. By the way, Russell, I do not work only with students who are tagged gifted.
    I believe every child and adult has potential to excel in his or her area of interest.
    I work with every family who is motivated to learn.
    One of the purposes of the Mensa organization is to “foster the development of human intelligence.”
    That is my main reason for belonging to Mensa.
    I love working with children who are academically challenged
    just as much as I love working with children
    who challenge the abilities of the adults around them.

  6. i have also heard stories of teachers (to test a theory) taking the test as if they were a student and completely guessing at answers (i.e. randomly hitting a,b,c,d) and still getting a great reading level. yet wardynski and some principles swear that guessing does not work on these tests.

    1. W, it is very possible to receive a passing grade when guessing the answers on individual Accelerated Reader book quizzes. However, the STAR Reading test, when I was teaching, was composed of (if I remember correctly) 40 questions. The test begins with simple vocabulary matches to definitions. If the student scores correctly, the questions increase in difficulty. If the student misses several, the level of difficulty drops. After a certain number of vocabulary, the test moves into paragraphs; and, then, for the higher achieving students, into essays or short stories.
      The STAR Math test is similar in its transitioning dependent upon the correctness of the answers. However, the math test covers so many objectives that it would be difficult to achieve a high score through random selection of answers.
      When I was allowed to teach correctly, I taught my students at a rapid pace so that many fifth- and sixth- grade students, and a few fourth-grade students, scored tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grade. I always maintained a notebook showing the actual daily and weekly progress of my students in Accelerated Math so there could be no question as to whether they had actually scored that high.
      Southern Adventure Amusement Park and the two local skating rinks offered rewards to students in my classes who achieved mastery of a reasonable number of objectives each year. During several years, there were students who mastered all the objectives on grade level and continued into the higher grade levels just because they were enjoying the sense of achievement.

    2. In regard to Russell’s comment: “There is no educational benefit to your child to spend up to a day a week, every week preparing to take the STAR test. Opt-out.”–
      Regular math instruction is supposed to prepare every student to test well. Spending a day a week every week specifically in preparation to take a test of any kind is a waste of time.
      However, there will very likely be negative repercussions to families and students who request the option of not taking the test and not following teachers’ directions in practicing for the tests.

      1. Ms. Williams,
        I am curious… What kind of repercussions do you feel that one should expect? (So that I can be prepared ahead of time!)
        I have already pulled one child out of ASFL and into homeschooling…. According to ASFL, she was “Flunking” Algebra I and they felt she needed to be pulled back into Pre-Algebra…..Yet, IRONICALLY, when we put her into a Homeschool “Covering,” and she took their Math placement test, she tested at Algebra TWO Level, and has done fine ever since!?!?!?

        At any rate, I have stated my story on here before….I am giving our younger son the remainder of the School year at ASFL, and then my wife and I will pray/think/decide on what to do with him this Fall.


        My questions to Russell are:

        1. What is the proper Wording/Terminology to make it “Official/Legal” that I want to OPT my child out of STAR Testing? (This might make a GREAT Blog Post on it’s OWN!)

        2. What do YOU feel (and Ms. Williams, as well) would be any Repercussions that we might see from Opting-Out?

        3. Is there a Legal/Official way to Opt-Out of my child bringing home a LAPTOP for homework, and reverting back to Pen/Paper/Textbook method (Which has worked for 50+ years JUST FINE!!)??? ……Not to mention the fact that we NEVER ASKED to have another piece of technology in our home (which we try and monitor closely) which has INADEQUATE Security Measures in place on it, allowing my child to access parts of the Internet that are against OUR OWN Religious/Moral/Ethical beliefs?!?!?
        Don’t get me wrong…. I’m NOT anti-Technology. I am “ANTI” a school system that HALF-ASSES throwing together a bunch of over-priced DELL laptops and can’t even have an I.T. Department smart enough to put decent software on it that blocks external/social media/gaming/inappropriate websites!

        4. We know that 160+ Teachers have Retired and/or Quit since all of this stuff started. Any idea on the WITHDRAWAL rate of Students? (i.e. Withdrawal to Homeschool and/or Private Schools?)

        I’m done. I’m over it.

        Call me spoiled.. Call me a BRAT… Whatever you wish.

        We moved here from B’ham 4 years ago. We were in the Vestavia School System there (OUTSTANDING!)….

        In hindsight, I guess we had false hopes and dreams of moving to the “ROCKET CITY” and thinking that the School Systems in Huntsville would be much better, especially considering the influx of Military/Science/Professionals/Technology….And we were apparently DREAMING to think that the School System here would have been held to a MUCH higher Standard??!?!?

        I’m willing to FIGHT… But, outside of us voicing our opinion by OPTING-OUT, what can really be done??

        Are there legal routes and avenues to hold “WARD’s” feet to the Fire and hold him accountable, before we have another ATLANTA BLOW-UP?!??


        Dusty Graham

        P.S. Yes, this is my REAL NAME, and I have already announced which school my child goes to. I am fully aware that the School Board probably monitors and reads this Blog. I really don’t CARE. What is the worst that can happen? …….

        If retaliated against, I’ll just prematurely proceed with pulling my child out anyhow, and homeschooling them. Then they can get an Education where they are TAUGHT, and not spend the majority of their time being TESTED with unnecessary tests!

        And to all the Teachers out there who feel that their hands are tied: This is NOT directed at you! I know the “System” makes it impossible to Teach sometimes!…. Just PLEASE hang in there!

        1. I don’t know that you can opt-out of the STAR. I tried to do it last year because I realized that the scores meant absolutely nothing. I was told by the school administration that my children had to take the test. Keeping them out for a few days wouldn’t matter (as it would with the ARMT) because they would just give them the test whatever day my children were at school. I would have no notice as to when the test was given and would not know when to take them out of school. I was led to believe that they would give the test even if I told them not to.

          As far as the accelerated math, I agree that it could be a very effective tool for individualized instruction. However, it was not used that way at the school we attended. My children were given accelerated math worksheets at their STAR level, but there were no small group instructional periods. Every once in a while they were able to ask their teachers questions, but about 90% of the time, they brought the sheets home, and their father or I taught them how to do the new concepts. I was told that it would be impossible for the teacher to work with each child at their individual level (which I thought was the whole point of all the STAR testing.) It would have been all right except that they still had to do all the busywork sent home for homework before they could start to work on the AM “fun stuff” where they were actually learning. My sister’s children attend a different school, but she has had the same experience.

          We are now at a school where the children are sent to math classes at their ability level. Homework is so much better because they are being taught the new concepts at school during the regular school day and only having to do one math assignment each night instead of two.

            1. No, the principal and the reading coach just told me that the children would be tested and that if they were absent the day their class took the test, then they would be given the test on the day they returned. They would not address any of my concerns and seemed a little shocked that I would even question them regarding the test. I got the feeling they thought I wasn’t smart enough to understand their “methods.”

  7. Given the similar scandals between Michelle Rhee’s DC School District and the one in Atlanta, where and for what does the National PTA stand (I think we already know the local PTA’s stance)?

  8. I just received a reply from David Blair responding to the information stated in this blog. This was his response: “I believe this was reported on the news last night and found to be false.” If what Mr. Blair says is true, then all of you posting on this blog need to stop proliferating lies about our school system.

    1. Found to be false? They had an employee say on camera, “cheating isn’t possible,” but she offered no evidence to support her claim.

      His standard for truth and falsehood doesn’t seem to be based on anything but opinion.

      Shame that his standards are so low, especially when his standards are directly affecting the future of our children.

    2. i have posted no untruths but facts. if you believe any of the board then i feel bad for you. they have done nothing but lie to parents and students since Wardynski came on board.

  9. Uh…I was being extremely sarcastic when I said that we need to stop proliferating lies about the school system. I, for one, have had it up to my eyeballs with the BOE and their tyrannical leader. By the way, as of yesterday, students are STILL enjoying playing games and visiting unauthorized websites in the classroom while teachers are trying to teach. Oh but wait…didn’t Wardynski tell us not to listen to rumors about kids accessing unauthorized sites? After all, they are blocking these with an effective filtering program! Yeah right! And any parents out there who doubt this, please ask your kids what goes on in the classroom. I’m getting my info from both a student and teachers!

  10. What is funny about this is that Wardynski and Blair and whoever it was that “rebutted” your news interview have changed the wording of “cheating” to mean something impossible. Any time they want to know how easy it would be to cheat the system, let me know. I’ll walk them through it step by step.

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