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Probe SEA Results

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
July 13, 2011

"How come one school could get 14 passes in the top one hundred places of the SEA," asked the irate caller on the phone, and drew her own conclusion: "Dey had to tief."

After she calmed down she explained her anxiety. She was referring to the fact that 14 students from Chaguanas Government School placed among the top one hundred students at the recent SEA examination. To her mind, that was impossible.

I thought these students had studied hard and did a magnificent job until she announced:

"Ah hear ah Indian man from San Fernando give some teacher de exam and that is why dem students did so well."

I did not like the racial manner in which she framed her questions. She was giving the impression that only Indian does tief. I couldn't tell her that one week ago, the whole of the Atlanta Public School, a predominantly black school district in the United States, was accused of cheating on their examination, all with the purpose of getting more money for their school districts from a federal program called "No Child Left Behind."

I continued to listen as she kept on ranting about the fundamental unfairness of the system and the advantages Indians have in the educational arena.

I am an educator. Although I wanted to disregard her highly-wrought conclusion I could not leave them unanswered. I wanted to know the statistical possibility of such a thing happening.

I had served as a member of the Massachusetts Education Board; did various reports for Higher Educational Opportunities Program in New York; and contributed to Harvard University Core Curriculum that changed undergraduate education in the United States during the last quarter of the 20th century. I had even taught at Bedford Stuyvesant Youth in Action, a program for disadvantaged youth,in New York's inner city, so I know something about education and made several contacts in the field.

Taking the bull by the horns, I called a colleague at William Patterson University in New Jersey who put me on to a statistician to whom I asked the following question:

"17,327 students from 541 schools take an exam. One school has five standard five classes of approximately 25 students each. Some schools have several standard five classes that take the exam. Each class consists of approximately 25 students. Statistically, what are the chances of fourteen students from one of those classes being placed in the first 100 places in that exam?"

He answered:

"Bottom line I think it is safe to say that something untoward happened. a) unless this teacher is the most brilliant in the world; b) unless these 14 students are the most brilliant in the world; the chances are one trillion to one that some form of 'cheating' went on."

Necessarily, more question needed to be answered (such as, "If this teacher taught last year, what was her/his class results?" "Is this a prestige school; is this an honor's class and so on?") before one could arrive at a more definite answer.

I could not answer all of these questions. Although this colleague sent me the process by which he arrived at his conclusion, I couldn't get my mind around the startling conclusion: the chances of a particular class getting 14 places out of 100 in an exam in which 17,327 children from 541 schools were tested were one trillion to one.

My other colleague is a mathematician. He received his doctorate from University of Chicago and a master's degree from Cambridge University, England. I posed the same question to him. He responded as follows:

"The probability is so incredibly small that it is almost zero. In fact, the probability that such a thing happens is about .00000000000000000258086%. This computes the probability that some class of 25 has 14 students in the top 100.

"I think that it is fairly certain that either cheating was involved, or you have an exceptionally bright number of students in this particular class."

The statistical probability of this class achieving this educational feat was even more startling. Such a thing was almost impossible.

Cheating takes place in many jurisdictions. However, responses to such cheating vary widely. In Atlanta six high-ranking educators were stripped of their duties. In Dallas where a similar thing happened Superintendent Kathy Augustine was relieved of her $188,000-a-year job immediately. In Georgia criminal charges are being considered against some of the principals of the school system.

In our case, these children became a cause of celebration; the teacher was canonized as a genius and Jack Warner gave the school and the children $250,000. No questions were asked; no answers were required.

When I began my preliminary inquiry, every one I spoke to felt that something had gone wrong but no one had any actual evidence. My friend might have been biased in ascribing these cheating tendencies to one group but her fundamental suspicion is supported by the scientific evidence.

I am not sure what the posture of the Minister of Education is on this matter or how Ministry officials intend to respond to the flash of brilliance that occurred in this school. Under the circumstances, the Minister of Education has no more urgent responsibility than to use his resources to find out what happened and whether or not cheating took place.

Such an examination is important for both groups in the society. It removes the perception that one group only tief to get along while the other group is just dotish.

We need to remove such clouds of suspicions from our educational horizon.

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