Those sneaky students in the back of the classroom aren't the only cheaters.
Teachers and school leaders are getting in on the scams by boosting test scores not through better instruction, but by erasing wrong answers, replacing them with the right ones and hoodwinking parents in the process.
Nowhere was the corruption more widespread than in Atlanta, where a recent probe found that 44 schools and 178 teachers and principals had been falsifying student test scores for the past decade. Suspected cheating also is under review in the District, and the Department of Education's inspector general is assisting with the investigation.
In Pennsylvania, reports that surfaced this week show suspected cheating in at least three dozen school districts. State Education Secretary Ronald Tomalis on Thursday ordered those districts to investigate the suspicious scores and report back within 30 days. He also asked a data company to analyze 2010 scores, according to the Associated Press.
Similar charges of cheating have been discovered in Baltimore, Houston and elsewhere.
Although the details differ, education specialists think each scandal has a common denominator.
"There's a very simple cause: consequences," said Gregory Cizek, a professor of educational measurement and evaluation in the School of Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "Any district where you've got kids who are at risk of not succeeding ... there are problems as big as Atlanta, as big as D.C., as big as Philadelphia. The more stakes there are involved, the more you're going to see it."
The Atlanta probe found that "cheating occurred as early as 2001," the year the No Child Left Behind Act was enacted. Mr. Cizek and others argue that the greater accountability schools face, the more likely that teachers and administrators are to, at best, turn a blind eye to cheating. At worst, they encourage it.
Former Atlanta Superintendent Beverly Hall was named superintendent of the year by the American Association of School Administrators in 2009. She retired last month and told USA Today on Wednesday that she "did not know about the cheating."
Under No Child Left Behind guidelines, schools can be labeled "failing" if student test scores don't meet state benchmarks. Poor results are embarrassing for teachers and often cost principals, superintendents and school board members their jobs. By contrast, high scores on reading and math tests equal praise for those in charge.
In the face of such pressure, teachers and administrators sometimes go with their "natural reaction," said Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing.
"The teachers and principals who changed test scores did something unethical and probably illegal, [but they were] caught between a rock and a hard place," he said. "We've created a climate that corrupted the educational process. The sole goal of education ... became boosting scores by any means necessary."
The Education Department has estimated that more than 80 percent of schools could be labeled as "failing" this year under No Child Left Behind, and congressional leaders are working on overhauling the law.
The House Committee on Education and the Workforce has passed the first three pieces of its five-step reform process, and Rep. John Kline, Minnesota Republican and committee chairman, has said the final legislation will change the accountability process and free schools from the testing mandates.
"One of our primary goals is to put more control in the hands of state and local education officials who can properly monitor and address situations like this to ensure students are not being cheated out of a quality education," Mr. Kline said.
Investigations of suspected violations often move slowly.
Until recently, education officials in Pennsylvania apparently were unaware of a 2009 analysis of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment that identified "testing irregularities" at schools in Philadelphia, Hazleton, Lancaster and elsewhere. Former Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak, who served under Gov. Edward G. Rendell, has denied seeing the 44-page document, the Associated Press reported.
"It's in nobody's interest ... to really do a searching, thorough investigation," Mr. Cizek said. "Vigorously pursuing an allegation is just a lose-lose-lose situation" for students, teachers, districts and parents, none of whom wants to admit wrongdoing or, in the students' cases, face the reality that they didn't score as well as they thought.
As a result, those students "are left even further behind," Mr. Schaeffer said, by not getting the remedial education they need.
Some fear the worst is yet to come. Mr. Schaeffer said the District could be "the next Atlanta, only bigger," when the investigation is complete, but D.C. officials have welcomed federal involvement.
"I actually think that it is a huge step in ensuring that we have a thorough and serious investigation," D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson said last week. "My hope and my expectation is that the U.S. Department of Education will be able to lend significant capacity to ensuring that we have a top-notch investigation."
Although the federal government is helping with the D.C. case, Mr. Schaeffer argues that federal lawmakers largely caused the cheating scandals by forcing schools to focus time, effort and money on standardized assessments.
"It's harder and harder for politicians with a straight face to say high-stakes testing is improving education," he said.
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