State Education Resources Go to Cheating Probes

K-12 Testing
Texas, which led the way in test-driven school reform, is now dealing with one of the more nefarious consequences of high-stakes testing: pervasive cheating allegations that seem to consume ever more state education resources and attention. Texas education officials announced in August that 699 schools would be investigated for cheating on state tests. The officials said they would investigate every school on a list compiled by the for-profit firm Caveon, which was paid more than $533,000 to look for patterns and anomalies that might indicate cheating. Cheating stories also continued to unfold in New Jersey and Massachusetts.


The long list of implicated schools and public pressure prompted Texas Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley to create a Task Force on Test Integrity to review procedures for investigating cheating allegations. The task force made several recommendations, including that teachers at schools in question can provide anonymous tips on alleged wrongdoing to investigators. Neeley also said the Texas Education Agency would triple its investigative staff from five to 15 members. Meanwhile, teacher bonuses touted by Governor Rick Perry as he campaigns for reelection have been held up to ensure schools are cleared of wrongdoing. Teachers found to have cheated will be reported to the State Board for Educator Certification for disciplinary action.


The Texas imbroglio illustrates one way high-stakes testing and its consequences divert time and money away from teaching and learning. Rather than investing in schools, scarce state funds are being diverted to such things as hiring test monitors to watch classrooms where cheating is suspected and completing audits of test security.


As the stakes for improving test results continue to rise, other states are also diverting resources to detecting and punishing cheating.

  • A state review of cheating allegations in Camden, New Jersey, concluded that "adult interference" resulted in unusually high test scores at several Camden schools. The report did not reach a conclusion about allegations by a former elementary school principal that he was told to rig a test. It did, however, find evidence of "interference" including accommodations reserved for special needs students being extended to regular education students, strikingly similar and "sophisticated" answers from fourth graders on one open-ended question, and students permitted to use calculators for an entire math test instead of only a few parts.
  • More Massachusetts teachers but fewer students are being accused of cheating on state MCAS tests. The state Department of Education reported in August that allegations against teachers had risen to 15 in 2006 from three in 2005. Katherine K. Merseth, director of Harvard University's teacher education program, explained that teachers don't respect the measure, so "They're helping a child on a test they see as meaningless."
  • In the Massachusetts town of Haverhill, police are investigating the theft of a test booklet from Pentucket Lake Elementary School. The Eagle-Tribune newspaper had received the booklet in April with an unsigned letter that read: "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???" Police believe the culprit is a member of the school staff. Detective Sgt. John Arahovites said several school employees were asked to take lie detector tests, and he expects to bring charges by the end of October. "I think we have a school employee who's a crook, and we need to get this person out of the schools," Arahovites said. (Massachusetts bars the use of lie detector results in criminal trials due to lack of accuracy.)