NCLB Boosts Temptation to Cheat

K-12 Testing

Reports of cheating on state standardized exams are becoming much more frequent, and many observers see a clear link between such dishonest behaviors and the high-stakes pressures attached to tests by state policies and the “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) law.


The Los Angeles Times recently reported that since statewide testing began five years ago, “more than 400 public school teachers in California have been investigated for allegedly helping students” on the tests, double the number reported by the state Department of Education.


Cheating accusations have also surfaced recently in Florida, New York, Massachusetts, Arizona, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Illinois and elsewhere. Examples include:


• Charges that a Brooklyn, NY, elementary school kept copies of previous years’ exams and gave them to teachers and students to prepare for new exams.
• Teachers at a Manhattan elementary school accused of urging parents to label their kids “learning disabled” to obtain more time to finish a high-stakes third-grade reading exam.
• The resignation of a principal of a school serving low-income students in Worcester, MA, after the percentage of students scoring proficient on the state test suddenly jumped from 17 to 76 percent, in one subject and grade.
• An eighth-grade teacher in Pennsylvania suspended after being accused of providing students with answers to the state test.
• Florida seniors at risk of not graduating because of allegations of cheating.
• A Boston principal accused of sending a teacher out of a fourth-grade classroom and then insisting that students redo their tests.
• Massachusetts and other states considering banning cell phones on testing days to prevent students from using text messaging and photographic features to cheat.


Some allegations of cheating have been shown to be false, and only a tiny percentage of teachers have been accused of cheating. Still, educators know their reputations and that of their schools are on the line in an era of testing and sanctions that has been greatly intensified under NCLB. In some cases, their salaries or even their jobs are at risk if student “proficiency” does not increase according to the NCLB “adequate yearly progress” formula. This pressure increases the temptation to make the grade by any means necessary.


The Los Angeles Times quoted California Teachers Association President Barbara Kerr, who said that the union didn’t excuse cheating but that she felt bad for teachers who broke rules under what she described as “horrendous” pressure.


“We have gone to such extremes — where your whole life and existence is measured by one test — that the pressure is on the kids, the pressure is on the teachers, the publicity is so overblown,” she said.


A high school senior in Syracuse, NY, described the consequences for students of unrelenting pressure to raise test scores. “Some of the students with the best grades and the toughest course loads are the ones who cheat the most,” said Pete Callahan. “This is not really surprising. These days the message being sent to students is that grades and standardized test scores are the only things that matter. …This high-pressure environment causes students to overextend themselves and start believing that the end will always justify the means.”


The term “cheating” is applied to a wide range of behaviors. Many teachers face a dilemma when students they know understand the material are tripped up by confusing and ambiguous questions. The rules usually prohibit any efforts to clarify a confusing question, yet teachers may feel that a few words of clarification might make the test a more accurate portrayal of students’ knowledge.


Some experts argue that officially sanctioned test preparation is itself a type of cheating on several levels. First, by coaching so narrowly that students repeatedly practice on questions that are similar to the actual exam items, the test loses validity as a representation of the students’ broad understanding of the material. Second, as schooling becomes increasingly narrowed to preparation for math and English tests, schools are “cheating” students out of a broader curriculum that they need for higher education and life.