K-12 Testing
A recent national survey by the Philadelphia Inquirer found just half of states conduct statistical analyses of test results to identify possible cases of cheating. As the pressure to meet federally mandated test score targets as well as state-imposed goals continues to increase and is felt at every level, from state officials, school administrators and teachers, down to third graders or even younger students, allegations of cheating continue to erupt in many states.


State education officials often seem ambivalent about uncovering cheating, more eager to trumpet improved test results than to investigate them. Texas and New Jersey, for example, both resisted investigating recent charges of cheating until the media focused on the issue.


Though data on the precise amount of cheating by administrators, teachers and students is not available, the growing emphasis on preventing, policing and sanctioning cheaters is destructive in several ways. First, it sucks up large amounts of time, effort and resources that could be put to much better educational use. Worse, it detracts from the more critical issue of how high-stakes testing corrupts and degrades the quality of teaching and learning in the nation's classrooms.


Among recent reports of alleged cheating are these:


  • Two Houston Independent School District teachers have resigned, and Texas education officials have begun a cheating investigation of 14 schools with suspiciously high test scores. The state also has created a new five-person board to oversee test security issues. Meanwhile, many school superintendents are complaining that a cheating investigation tarred their schools' reputations but didn't provide enough details for them to be able to clear their names. Media reports over the past year of widespread cheating prompted state education officials to pay Utah-based Caveon $500,000 to search for signs of cheating on state test scores. The state was only seeking enough information to get a general picture of the problem. As a result, Caveon delivered a list of 609 schools suspected of cheating, but not enough information for schools to investigate the validity of the charges. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) initially planned to let schools police themselves, then reversed course after it was revealed that 14 suspect schools had qualified for state bonus money because high test scores. Richardson Superintendent Jim Nelson expressed frustration with the outcome, saying, "Anger and frustration aimed at the [TEA] is palpable. I want to help, but we must have access to their analysis." Caveon reportedly said more detailed information could be obtained, but it would cost TEA more money.
  • In Florida, a high school principal was removed from her job after being accused of moving at least 54 9th and 10th-graders with special needs into 11th grade so their scores on the state test would not count toward the school's state-imposed grade. Though it was determined that the move would not have changed the school's rating, the incident resulted in three assistant principals being disciplined, in addition to Lori Backus, principal of Cocoa High in Brevard, who is accused of masterminding the scheme. School board member Larry Hughes wrote in an email, "A single, high stakes test places tremendous pressure on our employees, but the district can not, will not, accept any manipulation of the testing process by our employees."
  • In Virginia, a teachers' aide and a guidance counselor were suspended after allegations the aide had changed answers on students' state test sheets. Franklin City Superintendent Alline Farmer said nearly a third of 5th-grade tests had erasures or extra bubbles filled in. The school, Morton Elementary, was under pressure to improve after failing to meet mandated goals last year, yet school officials said the teachers' changes would have resulted in more failures, not fewer. It's unclear what the motives might have been.
  • Massachusetts education officials called in July for the state's attorney general to launch a criminal investigation into the April theft of a test booklet from a Haverhill school. The booklet included trial items for next year's test. Local school officials had completed an investigation that found no wrongdoing on the part of school personnel who authorized access to the booklets, but the state Department of Education said a criminal investigation was warranted. The theft was not detected until the booklet arrived at the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune newspaper with an anonymous note reading, "Enclosed is a copy of this year's MCAS test that my child came home from Pentucket Lake School with. Are the children suppose to have this material - or is this a way for the school to improve their scores? Your thoughts???"
  • In New Jersey, the Philadelphia Inquirer raised questions about high test scores in Camden in 2005, after which the state decided to investigate.