- The Washington Times - Friday, June 10, 2011

National surveys show that most students report cheating at some point during their school careers. In addition, test fraud among educators is rising with increasing pay for performance of educators for their students’ gains on standardized tests. To improve the test validity and hold educators accountable, independent accounting and auditing systems are required.

Major accounting organizations in the United States help firms and nonprofit organizations conduct formal audits. Not limited in their scope to money, these firms gather and report information analogous to student achievement. They measure the circulation of library books, recovery rates in hospitals and client satisfaction on a variety of efforts. They have the independence, objectivity and specialized skills to gain telling information on a variety of organizations.

The school accountability problem is similar to that described by law professor Adolph Berle and economist Gardiner Means in their 1932 book “The Modern Corporation and Private Property.” They argued that because the interests of the corporate board and staff are not identical, boards require objective information and independent verification to carry out their fiduciary responsibilities to shareholders to assess the firm’s and the chief executive’s progress.

Today, the need for independent audits of schools is even more acute. The poor performance of U.S. schools compared with that of schools in other countries is actually worse than it appears because of fraud. Academic dishonesty proliferates and usually remains undetected. Students cheat to please adults in their lives, keep up with their peers or simply pass to the next grade level. Teachers also have incentives, such as better pay and greater status, when students score well on tests. They may teach the test content before administering a test, deliberately overlook students’ cheating or change students’ answers on tests.

Principals and superintendents may encourage systematic policies that foster misleadingly inflated test scores. Administrators have been caught encouraging academically weak students to stay home on test days, incorrectly assigning students to special education programs not subject to testing, and ignoring hints of apparent testing malfeasance. Even principals in wealthy Fairfield, Conn., and Lake Forest, Ill., were dismissed over instances of cheating. Collectively, these various forms of cheating lead to specious test results, undermine students’ belief in hard work and encourage students and those who care about them to overestimate their abilities.

Incentives associated with appearing competent regardless of the means renders school boards unable to offer fair and objective evaluations of principals’ or superintendents’ leadership in promoting achievement, to accurately report school achievement to citizens and parents, or to make convincing arguments about why students should work hard in school. Like corporations, schools could benefit from audit committees on boards and the assistance of independent accounting firms. With the help of independent firms, state and district boards could assist schools in planning and assessing testing procedures, reporting student learning gains and evaluating the school’s progress under the chief executive.

The once-common control of schools by 115,000 local school boards in small communities enabled close monitoring by local residents. But today’s roughly 15,000 districts and increased control by states allow no such citizen monitoring and control. State and district school boards are confronted with large, difficult-to-fathom sets of costs and test scores for the various subjects and grade levels. They lack the time and technical understanding to assess how well the schools and educators are performing academically, certainly much less well than the ranking of the school sports teams.

Given the magnitude of test fraud, moreover, confidence in test results might be greatly increased by contracting with independent firms to conduct the testing. If independent referees are required in sports, they are even more important in assessing learning - the principal mission of schooling.

Herbert J. Walberg is a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and author of “Tests, Testing, and Genuine School Reform” (Hoover Institution Press, 2011).