Photo by mark.sze on Flickr.

On Friday, DC’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education confirmed allegations of cheating on the DC CAS test at close to a dozen schools. Officials are downplaying the significance, saying that only a small percentage of classrooms had cheating. But this misses the point; a problem that affects few can shake trust for many, as Intel Corp. found out with its Pentium processor.

Intel launched the Pentium chip in 1993. This tiny microprocessor is the CPU (central processing unit) for what were some of the widest-selling personal computers in the mid to late 1990s. Intel spent approximately $150 million in an advertising campaign around the Pentium’s highly-anticipated launch, but a flaw soon came to light.

In late 1994, Thomas Nicely, a math professor at Lychburg College in Virginia, was performing complex computations on his Pentium-powered computer. Checking his computations, he found his sums vastly differed from the theoretical values he expected.

After a different CPU gave him the correct results, Nicely tracked the flaw to the new Pentium chip. Ultimately, the difference in lay with the digits in the one billionth place value, or 0.000000001, but it was a flaw and the Pentabug Problem was born.

Dr. Nicely posted his findings on the Internet with some colleagues, which quickly resulted in a wave of press coverage including interviews with CNN and other world news media outlets. When contacted, Intel responded they were aware of the problem, but it would only occur once every 27,000 years for most users.

The company offered to consider replacing chips on case-by-case basis, insisting the customer held the burden to prove that they needed a replacement. Instead of accepting accountability for the flawed product, they downplayed its magnitude, deflected blame, and hoped the media storm would blow over.

This ignited the public relations nightmare.  On December 12, 1994, IBM halted all shipments of the Pentium processor causing Intel’s stock to drop 5% almost immediately.

This was an inflection point for former Intel CEO Andrew Grove. He issued a public apology and bore the brunt of the replacement cost, totaling $475 million. In his apology, he offered, “We are today announcing a no-questions-asked return policy on the current version of the Pentium processor. Our previous policy was to talk with users to determine whether their needs required replacement of the processor. To some people, this policy seemed arrogant and uncaring. We apologize.”

Putting in place hundreds of customer service employees to field customer requests, Grove was able to turn the corner on the Pentabug Problem, and by the end of the year, the company had locked up orders for its next generation Pentium chips for 1995. It has been able to remain the world’s number one semiconductor manufacturer by revenue every single year since.

What can and should DCPS learn from the Pentabug Problem?

Chancellor Henderson said in her statement, “The results released today by the OSSE confirm what we at DCPS already know: nearly all of our teachers, more than 99 percent, are following the very strict procedures and protocols we have in place to prevent testing impropriety.” The 18 confirmed violations amount to 0.6% of all the system’s classrooms, which some may consider a very small amount.

But while the OSSE investigation solely covers the 2012 DC CAS test, concerns about cheating first cropped up in 2008 when Chancellor Michelle Rhee was at the helm. Last week, a memo surfaced where consultant Fay G. “Sandy” Sanford warned former Chief of Data and Accountability Erin McGoldrick that erasure data might implicate cheating in 70 schools.

Officials took action against a few principals, but kept the findings quiet. Throughout allegations that surfaced in 2008 and 2011, and even now that OSSE has confirmed there was cheating, DCPS continues to say that test integrity is of the utmost importance. However, it is unclear what has been done to confront and prevent systemic abuse. In the interim, though, hundreds of teachers have been fired due to poor results on tests.

The longer an organization avoids taking blame, the more difficult to move forward. Grove took responsibility and initiated the necessary action to overcome the Pentium’s flaw. The Pentabug became the Repentium, and Intel regained the public’s trust.

The DCPS cheating scandal has already elicited strong responses from reporters, elected officials, parents, and other residents. Some say the cheating shows that using tests in teacher evaluations is a failed strategy, while others say it just shows we need to crack down on cheating. Either way, DCPS needs to take responsibility for their actions and show a strong response.