In April, eighth-graders at Sunset Ridge School in Northfield, Ill., a wealthy suburb north of Chicago, reported a troubling incident to school officials: Someone had changed answers on the math portion of the end-of-the-year state achievement test they had just taken. An inquiry found altered multiple-choice answers on 90% of the tests the school's 80 eighth-graders had been given under the federal No Child Left Behind law. But it wasn't kids using crib sheets or stealing into classrooms to tamper with tests. Instead, suspicion fell on an eighth-grade teacher who denied cheating but promptly resigned, school officials say. (His name hasn't been released, so he couldn't be reached for comment.)
Now the Illinois Board of Education is investigating. And administrators there and elsewhere are worried that even among wealthy, top-performing schools like Sunset Ridge, teachers who are under pressure to show stellar results on state standardized tests may be cutting corners. "Teachers and administrators, like rabbis and priests, must be held to the highest standards because we are role models for kids," says Sunset Ridge principal Howard Bultinck.
A RASH OF TEST-RIGGING
As another school year comes to a close and results roll in around the country from new tests mandated by the 2002 No Child law, an unanticipated by-product has arisen: a broad spate of cheating -- not by students, but by teachers and administrators. From Pittsburgh and Milwaukee to Worcester, Mass., and Spokane, Wash., hundreds of teachers, principals, and administrators have been accused of doing anything they can to boost their schools' test scores. Transgressions include changing students' answers on tests, handing out exams -- and even answers -- in advance, tutoring students with real tests, blocking weak students from taking exams, and giving students extra time to finish.
The rash of test-rigging is driven largely by the goals of No Child, experts say, which aims to assess schools, not individual students. The math and English exams states must administer don't count toward students' grades. Instead, they're used to judge whether a school or district is making sufficient progress among three dozen categories of students, from special-education learners to those with weak English-language proficiency.
WHAT'S AT STAKE
If any group fails for two consecutive years, parents can move their children to another school -- and districts can lose their funding. Eventually, failing schools could close. Some states have taken the added step of tying financial incentives, such as teachers' bonuses, to student scores. Since the law's financial penalties won't fully kick in until 2014, experts say the motivation to cut corners will continue to grow. The outbreak is likely to accelerate the erosion of public support for No Child, which has been under attack by unhappy parents and teachers ever since it passed. The rising number of incidents also could further undermine confidence in public schools. "Teacher cheating is rising because the incentives to do so are increasing," says Steven D. Levitt, a University of Chicago economics professor who co-authored a recent study of teacher cheating on standardized exams.
The problem has sharply divided experts, who tend to be polarized about the No Child law anyway. Proponents say exam scofflaws are part of the price of annual testing, which shows parents how well a school is really doing, and dismiss the notion that accountability itself is the problem. "It is simply a disgrace that a small minority of teachers feel the need to cheat and are blaming their own moral failings on No Child Left Behind," fumes Education Secretary Rod Paige in an e-mailed statement to BusinessWeek. "Why not just say: 'The devil made me do it?"'
Critics, however, see the cheating as confirmation of their negative view of the law. Holding teachers and schools responsible for the results of one annual test, they argue, distorts the yearlong learning-and-evaluation process that takes place in the classroom. "In response to bad policies, teachers and schools will do bad things," says Monty Neill, executive director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing in Cambridge, Mass., which argues that No Child misuses standardized tests, hurting minorities in particular.
Some point out that even Houston's school system, the model President George W. Bush used to draw up the law, now faces civil lawsuits because of allegations that it boosted the city's test scores by excluding dropouts from the results. Houston's schools were headed part of this time by Paige, whom Bush brought to Washington largely because of the school performance that now looks exaggerated. Paige says he stands by his record in Houston.
Because the law is still so new -- schools aren't required to have all their tests in place until next year -- no one really knows how widespread the finagling has been. In Chicago, about 5% of the system's 40,000 classrooms had seen some cheating since the city stepped up No Child-style standardized tests in 1996, according to a 2002 study by Levitt and Harvard University public policy professor Brian A. Jacob. Now the No Child law may prompt more cheating, both in Chicago and across the country, since the federal law carries more financial penalties for teachers and schools, say experts.
Certainly, the end-of-school exam season has turned up plenty of outrageous incidents. In mid-June, a Boston elementary school principal was suspended with pay after a group of fourth-graders and their teacher alleged that she encouraged the students to cheat on the state test. In California, a May review of public records by the Los Angeles Times turned up more than 200 teachers who have been investigated for cheating since 1999. Many of the incidents involved schools with large minority populations, where test results often fall below the state minimum.
In some schools, students even seem to assume that getting help on the test is O.K., since their teachers are offering it. In May, Washington State reprimanded a fourth-grade instructor at Longfellow Elementary School in Spokane after she showed students answers to the math portion before they took the state exam last year. The teacher also coached some students and allowed others to share answers during the actual exam. She resigned last August, shortly before district administrators filed a complaint with state officials. (The teacher couldn't be reached by BusinessWeek for comment.) But when investigators looked into the incident, they found that one child wrote "my techre told me" in a section that required students to show their work, according to the state's Office of Professional Practices.
A handful of states and districts are cracking down. At least four state legislatures -- Michigan, Louisiana, Virginia, and Nevada -- have passed laws to combat teacher meddling, according to the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based nonprofit. And Pittsburgh education officials recently began placing independent monitors in each school after several cheating incidents. Still, given the tremendous pressure No Child is putting on schools and teachers, test-rigging isn't likely to stop soon. That's particularly unfortunate given the poor example it sets for any child who sees it. After all, when teachers cheat, they give students a lesson for life.
By Brian Grow in Atlanta