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Cheating on Roast Beef Sandwiches, Cheating on Standardized Tests: Lessons from D.C. under Michelle Rhee

When I was about 19, I worked as a cook at a fast-food restaurant chain. Their roast beef sandwiches were advertised as having four ounces of roast beef in them. Did they? Well, the loaves of raw beef that were sent to our restaurant were 10 pounds each. Now, 10 pounds divided by four ounces equals 40 roast-beef sandwiches, right? Not so fast. They actually weighed less when they came out of the oven, due to water loss. The central office was apparently concerned by this loss of “meat,” because they put pressure on all the restaurants to keep their sandwich count high.

In fact, the central office provided bonuses to managers at the
restaurants who squeezed the most sandwiches out of those ten-pound
loaves. The ones with the least were punished. Being forced to compete
with each other for the most sandwiches, the restaurant managers were
all, no doubt, tempted to cheat. And when one restaurant cheats, all
the honest ones look bad by comparison.

So there I was, weighing out my four-ounce sandwiches, and one day my
supervisor came to me and said, “Somebody is making these sandwiches
too big. Never weigh out more than four ounces. In fact, if you weigh
a little less, that’s okay.”

What an ethical dilemma! Should I keep weighing out four ounces and
risk getting in trouble or fired, or should I cheat the customers? It
was a bad position to put me in, all right.

So who was to blame?

This happened a long time ago, but it all came rushing back to me when
I read the news in USA Today that widespread standardized test
cheating had been found in Washington D.C. schools under
Chancellor Michelle Rhee (“When standardized test scores soared
in D.C., were the gains real?”
Jack Gillum and Marisol Bello, USA Today, March 28, 2011.)

According to Aona Jefferson, a former D.C. principal, Rhee visited all the principals every year and asked them to guarantee a 10 percent increase in standardized test scores every year. Meanwhile, according to the USA Today article, Rhee had also been firing principals and teachers every year.

That’s a setup for cheating. If you were told to cheat or lose your
job, what would you do?

That’s why I was so angry to see a blog post in the online journal
Education Next blaming teachers, principals, and schools (although
there’s no evidence at this point that they were the ones cheating),
and saying not a single word about Michelle Rhee or about the
high-stakes standardized testing (“Cheating and Other Deceptions About Students’ Learning,” Bill Tucker, Education Next, April 1, 2011).

Scapegoating teachers is just adding insult to injury, and hiding the structural problems that caused the cheating in the first place is just setting it up to happen again. More principals and teachers pressured to get high test scores, more
parents deceived about how well their children are doing, and more

So what kind of education do we want, anyway? The high-quality, honest
kind, or the three-ounce roast beef sandwich kind?

Let’s not set up any more schools to cheat. No more high-stakes testing.


(Kristin is a founding member of Parents Across America, Seattle, and a frequent contributor to Seattle Education 2010.)


8 comments on “Cheating on Roast Beef Sandwiches, Cheating on Standardized Tests: Lessons from D.C. under Michelle Rhee

  1. seattleducation2011
    April 21, 2011


    There are parents waiting on the sidelines who would be glad to do just that.

    Go to


  2. Kristin
    April 21, 2011

    NYP – thanks for sharing! I wonder: in cases like this, can parents act as cover? If it’s dangerous for a teacher to be a whistleblower, can a teacher share information with sympathetic parents, who can then make a ruckus?

  3. NTP
    April 5, 2011

    Last year I contacted someone from the county to share my concerns about suspiciouly rising test scores in my previous school. I detailed why I was concerned and the policies in place (such as the principal keeping the tests in his office) that seemed to encourage cheating. I was rewarded with an email stating that they do not keep the tests, so they couldn’t check on possible cheating, a somewhat snarky reply about how statistics work (I am a math teacher), and finally that my email was being forwarded to my old school. Yikes! Lesson learned – keep your mouth shut.

  4. Demian
    April 3, 2011

    I’d like my 4 oz of roast beef please! Your story really nicely illustrates the predicament educators are in with high-stakes testing.

  5. Kristin
    April 2, 2011

    @Frederika – yes, I agree, it’s the pressures that are the problem. Though the tests themselves can be problematic too, when they take so much time out of the classroom.

    Also, one omission I made from the article, and this is an important one: there is evidence of cheating, but not evidence that teachers cheated. Nobody knows who made the erasures.

  6. Frederika
    April 2, 2011

    Evaluation of ineffective or incompetent teachers and their improvement or their termination is a management responsibility. Sandyol already recognized the signs that the administration was not following through on a major part of their assignment–monitoring instruction and teacher capabilities. It should never have taken so long for someone to exit this teacher from the profession. However, this happens in lots of other businesses and service operations as well. Not limited to education. In my dad’s line of work, the poorer managers were often promoted the hell out of the way. They became someone else’s problem.

    The tests are not inherently the problem. They are designed to measure student achievement/performance/growth. It is the PRESSURES associated with testing, student test performance, scores, guarantees of growth, target goals, not yet met, that rise every year, etc. that are overwhelming students, parents, and staff. It is the pressurers who are partially to blame for the consequences. I empathize with the teachers and admins who may have felt their kids had to appear to excel, at any cost. In my current situation, I would not cheat. In another one, who knows what I might feel forced to do. One never knows.

  7. Kristin
    April 2, 2011

    Thanks for your feedback. How I would respond to that is to say – yes, standardized testing is here to stay. But “high-stakes” testing has some serious drawbacks, including cheating. In Washington, D.C., the stakes were really, really, really high.

    I would also say, yes, there are some teachers who definitely should be in another profession – but they are really the minority. Also, standardized tests are not needed to identify them – in my experience, the whole school community knows. The problem is that we don’t have a fair system. And that’s been blamed on the unions, but in my experience, school bureaucracy unrelated to teaching contracts makes a difference.

  8. sandyol
    April 2, 2011

    You don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater – it is not the testing that is the problem but how the results are used.

    We implemented standardized testing here in Ontario, Canada and it was a huge help in identifying schools that were under performing and failing their students. In some case, I do believe there were poor teachers because our system does not reward excellence in teaching and the bad ones are never fired so there is little incentive to excel. My daughter had a Grade 3 teacher who sent home assignment instructions riddled with spelling mistakes and bad grammar. Every year families requested to not have their students in her class so it was obvious to the administrators that there was a problem but she remained there for over 20 years. Once the standardized testing was implemented, teachers who had her students after her were annoyed to have to reteach so much material or have their students fail the tests so there was finally some internal pressure for her to improve.

    In most cases however it pointed out deficiencies in the programs. In one school almost every boy in Grade 3 failed the reading test. When this came to light, they were forced to examine their program and found that there was nothingl that the boys found enjoyable to read. By adjusting the program to incorporate more diverse reading material, this school’s score improved almost immediately. Had there not been the standardized testing this would not have come to light.

    The results only show you where the problem are and this should never be hidden away. If this was a hospital instead of a school, would you stop testing because the doctors were cheating on the scores?

    The issue was how administrators and the teachers reacted to the problem. Rather than looking for the real root of the problems, brainstorming for improvement and improving skills, they choose punishment and cheating as a solution.

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This entry was posted on April 2, 2011 by in Scandal, Testing and tagged , , , , .
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