Cheating In Huntsville City Schools

Data on the wall summer


UPDATE: After 15 minutes of debate, the Huntsville City Schools Board of Education imposed a 15-day suspension on Ms. Burks. The application of that suspension will be decided at a later date.

There is a personnel hearing happening in the board room in Huntsville City Schools right now to determine the fate of Ms. Eleanor Burks a fourth grade teacher at Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary school who is accused of helping a student cheat on the ACT Aspire state summative test administered on May 5, 2014.

The district, in the form of Dr. Cathy McNeal Director of Assessment and Accountability, is alleging that Ms. Burks sat beside a student watching the answers the student was providing. When the student entered an answer that Ms. Burks knew was incorrect, she prompted him to reconsider his answer and as a result he changed his answer.

One single answer on the test.

Ms. Burks attorney argued that the board had provided only witness testimony but had not provided any documentation supporting the claim.

The board is considering a 15 day suspension for Ms. Burks’ actions. The district further claims that this invalidates the other tests given to the other students in the classroom that day as well.

This is a developing story that you should follow on WAFF tonight and tomorrow.

This is what we know right now. What follows are my thoughts and opinions on this matter.

The Cheating Motivation

First, as I’ve written many times, a cheating scandal is the natural outcome from Dr. Wardynski’s board-supported policies of basing teacher evaluations on student test scores. In March of last year, I wrote how easy it is to cheat on the STAR Enterprise assessment. In November 2013, I wrote about two teachers who were brought up on cheating charges on the SchoolNet Benchmark assessment because, “their scores were too high.

Finally in April of this year, I published an email sent out by Dr. McNeal, yes, the same Dr. McNeal leveling charges against Ms. Burks today, that showed principals a step-by-step procedure for:

  • Printing the test ahead of time so that teachers may teach to the specific test that their students may receive;
  • Printing out the answer sheet for the specific test the student will take;
  • Monitoring any student’s progress on the test to potentially determine which students might be rushing through the test or struggling with specific questions on the test;
  • Clearing specific responses that a student makes on the test, and
  • Resetting the test so that the student may take the test multiple times.

You may view the actual email below.

McNealEmailMcNealEmail 1

While these instructions were for the SchoolNet Benchmark and not the ACT Aspire state test that Ms. Burks is alleged to have helped a student cheat on, I believe that this clearly demonstrates what is actually important to Dr. McNeal, Dr. Wardynski and this district’s leadership: they care about high test scores that can be paraded around by the superintendent not actual education.

District Tells Principals and Teachers How To Cheat

This district has given the principals of our schools specific instructions on altering student test answers and deleting entire tests, and now that a teacher has allegedly assisted one student with one question they are considering a 15 day suspension to make an example of how hard they will punish a teacher for the slightest infraction of the rules.

I am not defending cheating; however, a 15 day suspension for allegedly suggesting to a student that he/she might wish to reconsider an answer is a severe punishment for a minor mistake. This is particularly true when they send out specific instructions on how to erase a student’s test so that she/he may take it again, don’t you think?

I am convinced that the district is attempting to make an example out of Ms. Burks to hide the fact that they know that far worse cheating is happening across the district.

Action Plan: Contact WAFF

So what should we do?

Well, first, we need to recognize that anytime you create a system that bases teacher/principal evaluations, teacher/principal employment, and teacher/principal raises on student test performance that you are creating a system where student education is a minor concern and student test performance becomes everything. And once test performance takes a priority over education, teachers, principals and district administration will be tempted to cheat on the tests to boost their performance.

This is the logical outcome from the system that Dr. Wardynski with the board’s approval has put into place in Huntsville.

Second, regardless of the outcome of Ms. Burks hearing, we need to recognize that this, and frankly much worse, is happening across the district. Every single principal in the district received specific instructions on how to modify the SchoolNet Benchmark. At least some of those principals have forwarded this information on to their teachers. The potential for cheating is district wide. I am convinced that the actual incidence of cheating is also district wide.

Third, if you are a teacher or a principal in this district, I know that you have been pressured to help students out or suggest that they alter their answers. I know that many of you have been actually ordered to alter grades. I suspect that all of you have been tempted to cheat.

Please, don’t.

Instead, please consider coming forward with your story on this matter. WAFF is investigating this story, and they want to hear from any teacher who has been asked to alter answers, grades, or has been tempted to cheat.

They will provide you with complete anonymity if you wish. But they need to hear from you as soon as possible.

If you would like to tell your story, please contact Sarah Navoy, WAFF, at 256-303-7094 or at snavoy@waff.com.

It would be great if she could hear from you tonight or tomorrow.

The way to end the backwards approach to education that Dr. Wardynski has brought to our city isn’t to cheat. It’s to speak out clearly about what the system is doing to our classrooms, our teachers, and most importantly to our children.

Please contact Ms. Navoy today.

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


  1. I am always amazed that some people are surprised to learn that anyone would cheat … and the higher the stakes the greater the temptation to cheat. Let’s see … we have Motivation (job security, money, prestige) … we have Means (some provided by Dr McNeal and others more original) … and, we have Opportunity (since there is no independent test monitor). Oh sure … teachers must have super human integrity … they must not fall prey to human nature or the desire for self-preservation. We have placed teachers in a conflict of interest environment that is guarenteed to produce cheating, and we dare them to consider the consequences. (Isn’t there a common sense reason teachers don’t allow students to grade their own tests?)

  2. Witch hunt. Pure and simple. Any teacher with 25 years or more in the system is being scrutinized. WAFF should look into how many teachers have left MLK since the merger and how many teachers at that school have been written up in the last 3 years.

  3. Just want you to know that when the board returned from executive session they stated that they could not reach a decision but would vote on Wardynski’s recommendation which they did. The media did not tell that. Why did they have the media situated?

    1. So privately, they couldn’t reach a decision, but publicly, they voted unanimously?

      That is so typical of this board.

      I’m sorry that they’re attempting to make a scapegoat out of you. This is wrong, and the truth will come to light.

  4. The instructions for clearing test scores does not constitute as cheating. There are some situations where the test did not properly load diagrams needed for math questions. These students deserved an opportunity to retake the assessment. Also, the SchoolNet system can be used by the teachers to create classroom tests. A teacher can retest a student on a classroom test at their own discretion.

    1. Dear HSVReader,

      Thank you for sharing your opinion on the SchoolNet test. I agree that having the directions for monitoring a student’s performance, deleting a student’s answers, and potentially deleting a student’s entire test does not mean that a person is cheating.

      It does however make it extremely easy to do so if a teacher/principal decided to do so.

      Further, it is important to remember that the student’s performance on the SchoolNet Benchmark (and these directions were sent out immediately prior to the spring benchmark) directly impacts a teacher’s evaluations. How is it an effective and reliable tool for assessing teacher performance if the teacher has the ability to directly alter the student’s performance? Shouldn’t that information be controlled somehow?

      You’re right, if a student’s test doesn’t load the diagrams needed for math questions correctly, someone should be able to reset the test for that student.

      While it is possible that you’re correct about teachers being able to use SchoolNet to develop their own classroom tests, I know that there are many teachers who were never allowed to use the tool in this way. They were required to take the students into a lab and have the curriculum specialist set up the test in the lab. (There are, it seems, multiple sets of rules as to how SchoolNet can and cannot be used across the district. That’s also a problem.)

      Those are not, however, the only ways this “feature” is being used.

      I know of specific situations where students who did not test well the first time (on one of the three “benchmark” tests) were suggested that they might wish to take the test again. And the teachers then cleared the original results allowing the students to take the benchmark test again.

      I know that this “feature” has been used to alter low scores on the benchmark assessment used to evaluate teacher performance.

      Let me be clear: I do not blame the teachers for this. These tests are meaningless when they aren’t used for the purpose they were developed for (and evaluating teachers is not that purpose). Perhaps the teachers knew that these students could do much better and would be upset or crushed even if not allowed to try again. In my mind, that is a completely appropriate use of formative assessment, and teachers should have the freedom to make that decision. My teachers certainly did.

      But this test is not being used to evaluate students. It is being used to evaluate teachers, and that’s the problem.

      And finally, if a teacher can be suspended for 15 days for allegedly suggesting that a child might want to rethink an answer because that is “a testing anomaly,” and is therefore “cheating,” then don’t you think that resetting an entire test without supervision or resetting an answer without supervision also constitutes cheating?

      Yes, there can be legitimate reasons for someone to have the instructions that Dr. McNeal sent out to all the principals. There might even be legitimate reasons for a teacher to have those instructions. If the test were used solely to evaluate students, I would completely agree with you.

      The test isn’t being used that way, however. It is instead being used to evaluate teachers and principals. And therein lies the heart of the problem.


  5. Question for Eleanor Burke: How did these allegations come to light? Did the student volunteer the information, or were they asked about it?

    1. In response to your question, the student was called to the principal’s office and questioned about the alleged incident during the school day.I was only made aware of this on May 21 two days before school was out.

      1. So that means someone had to notify the school office about the allegations, any idea who that wa, and why?

  6. Ms. Burks, did an adult report the untruth and they went to a student to corroborate the lie? But the incident occurred in April?
    Did they come up with the story and back track?
    How was Cathy McNeal able to testify with so much information althought she was not at the school?
    You know its fishy, where is the test score sheet to prove a change was made and how did the student recall detailed information from a test period when there were several?
    Did they also show a PowerPoint presentation to recreate the lie. I know, stop being so sarcastic. If you can just respond to the first question we will allow the legal team get anwsers to the rest.

    1. It was initially reported by the adult proctor that was present during testing. The student was called later.

  7. The inconsistency between the procedures employed in court versus in this hearing are interesting, but mean nothing. Policies governing evidence gathering/presentation in each setting are governed by rules of THAT forum. It’s really not appropriate to attempt to compare the two because they are likely different. The actions within each setting must be evaluated against its own standard. I won’t claim to know HCS HR policy/procedures, so I don’t know what’s supposed to be allowed in anything prior to an actual lawsuit. But if Ms. Burks’ case is appealed through the administrative process to the point where it goes to court (as some other HCS personnel decisions have been), her attorney will get his chance to cross-examine this witness. And if HCS HR policy actually requires her to have a chance to challenge this evidence/testimony at an earlier stage in the process, well, the system has basically given Ms. Burks grounds for appeal and a door through which she can drag HCS back into court.

    I’m curious whether the attorney Brooks representing HCS in this hearing is related to the attorney Brooks who typically serves as their legal counsel. If so, the district’s leadership mis-steps have done much to enrich that family’s bottom line. It almost seems as though there is a built-in disincentive for them to advise the system to behave properly!

  8. The bottom line to all of this is that Wardynski runs the Huntsville City School Board – he is their BOSS. They would not dare go against him because they are afraid of him. Wardynski does not have anyone challenge him and Mrs Burks was suppose to take his decision and say yer sir boss and go back to her job. The fact that she said I am not guilty of this and I want my due process before the board was not expected by Wardynski or this pitiful board.

    1. I’m not entirely sure that it’s accurate to say that Dr. Wardynski is the “boss” of the people on the board. He has no power to remove them from their elected positions, and as such, I can’t see why they would fear him. I wonder sometimes whether they operate on their own conscience in a way that they genuinely believe benefits students, whether they have simply bought in to the “findings” of the various expensive consultants that parade through our district, or whether it’s a case of being afraid to be a lone contrary voice in the face of everyone else’s enthusiasm for all of Dr. Wardynski’s initiatives. They’re certainly not afraid of the voters that elect them to office, as David Blair demonstrated when he waffled about running for school board again in the face of his ringing rejection when he thought to run for state Senate.

      Furthermore, given the success that several employees have had in court when they appealed discipline or dismissal decisions in recent years, I’d have to think they KNOW this teacher would appeal an unfavorable decision. How could they not anticipate it?

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