Two news items caught my eye last week. One was about the Air Force was trying to get to the bottom of a cheating scandal. Involved were officers at a base in Montana whose job consists of maintaining and, if need be, launching intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The other story was an update on Ohio school districts where the state auditor has found “evidence of mal-intent” in data scrubbing. This is the practice in which school officials disenroll students whose test scores are likely to drag down a district’s performance on the Ohio Achievement Tests. The students are re-enrolled later so that their scores don’t count against the school on the state report card.
ICBMs used to be a huge deal. Americans and Soviets argued endlessly about them. They kept score on who had what and how many, who could annihilate whom in how many seconds,and consumed reams of paper negotiating every comma of treaties on what to do with them.
It all made for some anxious days. But it’s been quite a while since anything ICBM has hit the top of the general news. What trouble, then, could the people with their fingers on launch buttons possibly have gotten into in Montana? Selling missile parts on the black market? No. The scandal was rather run-of-the-mill: cheating. On proficiency tests.
It appears Air Force investigators looking into the use of illegal drugs at six Air Force bases found out about launch officers texting answers to colleagues taking proficiency tests. So far, the cheating investigation has snagged 34 of the 190 officers on the base, some for the actual cheating and others for not reporting the misconduct.
The chief of staff of the Air Force suggests the incident might be the largest such occurrence in the launch force. As news accounts have it, this incident is one in a string of recent embarrassments for the Air Force. Last spring, 17 launch officers were decertified for poor performance and “bad attitudes.”
Pentagon officials, of course, have expressed their dismay and pointed out that the cheating represents a violation of a core value — integrity — by a small number of officers. The cheating in no way compromises the nuclear mission, said Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James.
Comforting, to be sure. But the question that intrigues in all this is: Why, then, would anyone — presumably smart, highly trained people with their fingers on some of the most destructive weapons known to mankind — bother to cheat on a monthly test if performance on it really doesn’t affect much of anything with the mission?
Launch officers sit in an underground complex, on alert for the command to let loose nuclear-tipped missiles that can hit hostile targets half a world away.
But does anyone believe there will be an order anytime soon to fire off a Minuteman III? At whom?
In fact, analysts suggest the issue of relevance may play into the recent embarrassments. They say morale is low among the missileers, as they are called, in part because the mission has become a backwater operation for the Air Force, and options for career advancement are limited. The Soviet Union disintegrated, and the world moved on, leaving the ICBM mission essentially a Cold War relic.
Yet, Bruce Blair of Princeton University and a former missileer told PBS’s Gwen Ifill that the testing exacts a high price: “You couldn’t miss a single question. If you did, you flunked and went through some punitive process that was extraordinary.” And so, he said, officers band together to help each other out.
In short, the officers found a way to get around a process that seems removed from reality. That brings us to the local iteration in cheating.
Test scores form the basis of school and district grades on the state report card. Facing the threat of financially punitive measures for poor results, districts are under the gun to improve. The reality is, in many rural and urban districts, it’s a Herculean task to raise significantly the scores of hundreds of ill-prepared students. Unfortunately, some districts attempted to do so by sleight of hand, taking off the attendance rolls students who typically perform poorly.
A statewide review of allegations found evidence of manipulation in six districts, including Columbus, Toledo and Cleveland.
Like the officers, the district officials took a shortcut around integrity, trying to get around an accountability process that in its own way seems equally removed from reality.
Ofobike is the Beacon Journal chief editorial writer. She can be reached at 330-996-3513 or by email at email@example.com.