A Little Ethics Left Behind
It's easy to boost school test scores--if you don't care how you do it.
Whatever else the No Child Left Behind Act may accomplish, it is providing states with practice in civil disobedience. State policy makers have been busy all year passing regulations or preparing lawsuits to protest the strictures of the federal education testing law. Now, in many areas, they are questioning the results themselves.
Because promotions and other professional goodies are based on test outcomes, some principals and teachers are doing their utmost to guide students toward the right answers. "It's human nature that the more the pressure is increased, the more incentive there is to cheat," says Robert Embry, former president of the Maryland State Board of Education.
Teachers, in scattered but well-documented cases, have been found leading their students through practice exercises drawn from the supposedly secret tests. Others, rather than silently proctoring, coach frustrated students toward a correct answer. Some districts clean up answer sheets, erasing stray marks that can be read by machines as incorrect responses--and are sometimes a little too vigorous in their cleaning and correcting.
Several states are taking steps to address these problems, among them Texas, which has seen all of them, including some serious violations in the very district that provided the model for the federal law. Some states have increased training and bolstered security, sometimes sending independent monitors to schools on testing day. Others are creating separate assessment departments that can follow up on complaints about organized cheating.
Ironically, the stated purpose of No Child Left Behind--boosting test scores--has become a red flag. The more precipitous a district's gains, the more suspicious it may look. States are investing in software that will alert investigators when scores suddenly shoot up. There's no point, after all, in celebrating improvements that turn out to be frauds.
So far, it's all been rather ad hoc, and no one has come up with the perfect solution. John Fremer, a consultant who runs testing audits for states, predicts that security will become a central part of test design, which it hasn't been up until now. But the mere fact that states are taking the problem seriously is a preventive measure in and of itself. "The fact that people know they could be audited," says Gregory Cizek, an education professor at the University of North Carolina, "dissuades a lot of them."