Atlanta • The federal government has no standards to protect the integrity of the achievement tests it requires in tens of thousands of public schools, and test security among the states is so inconsistent that Americans can't be sure those all-important test scores are legitimate, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
The newspaper surveyed the 50 state education departments and found that many states do not use basic test security measures designed to prevent cheating. And nearly half the states, the newspaper found, make almost no attempt to screen test results for irregularities.
That kind of lax oversight contributed to the cheating scandal that swept Atlanta schools in 2009, the newspaper said in a story that appeared online Saturday. Evidence of widespread cheating is now emerging in Philadelphia, Columbus, Ohio, El Paso, Texas, and other cities around the country. The Journal-Constitution reported earlier this year that it had found patterns of suspicious changes in test scores in nearly 200 school districts nationwide.
The No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law 10 years ago, made standardized testing the cornerstone of national education policy. But it offered little direction on test security.
"To spend all this money and all this energy on testing, and the one area where we haven't devoted the same energy is standardizing the administration of the test to deter cheating," said Wayne Camara, vice president of research at The College Board, which administers the SAT and Advanced Placement tests. "To have better or standardized procedures would limit opportunities for cheating."
Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a recent interview that test security is the purview of state and local officials.
"So much of this is best done with thoughtful leaders at the state level, not a new complicated federal bureaucracy," Duncan said. "I don't think anyone wants a national testing police."
The Journal-Constitution's survey which elicited responses from 47 states reveals wildly inconsistent practices around the country. Some states require outside investigations of cheating in school districts, but most states permit districts to investigate themselves. Some states look for radical changes in scores from year to year, but most don't. Slightly more than half send out independent monitors to oversee testing, while at least 19 do not.
And the motivation to cheat could increase as more states and districts tie teacher evaluations, bonuses and pay to test results.
"If you think there's cheating now under school accountability, wait until what you see under teacher accountability," said Scott Marion, associate director at the Center for Assessment, a not-for-profit firm that works with about 30 states to develop tests and teacher accountability systems.
The newspaper reported that officials may be loath to report or even acknowledge cheating. In Atlanta, for example, accusations of cheating were met with denials not only from the school district but from local business leaders.
"There is typically little to no incentive for anyone to take threats to test security seriously," said Greg Cizek, a professor and testing expert at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "Educators are happy when test scores go up; parents are happy when their children do well; students are pleased when they are declared to be 'proficient'; the public is assuaged when all schools appear to be increasing learning."
With no motivation from the federal government and with little reason to look for cheating on their own, most states designed security systems that have failed to find blatant cheating even when the evidence is right in front of them, the newspaper found.
Records show some state officials failed to act when whistle-blowers stepped forward. Some states did nothing to investigate schools where students posted almost impossible gains on tests from one year to the next.
Many states, the newspaper reported, make it easier for educators to cheat by using weak security procedures. Forty-four allow teachers to proctor tests for their own students. The proctor's job is to ensure the security of the test; for example, making sure no unauthorized materials are used, enforcing time limits and reporting irregularities.
State and district records from multiple states show that some teachers are not above guiding their students to the right answers.
A teacher at a Phoenix elementary school, for example, told a colleague that she'd used red and green M&Ms during a test to nudge students toward the right answers. If she set a red M&M on a child's desk, that signaled the pupil had the wrong answer and should do the problem over again. If she put a green one on the desk, that meant the child had the right answer and should move on.
Sharon Rideau, an elementary and middle school teacher in California, told the red-and-green M&M story in her doctoral thesis, which focused on cheating. Rideau's survey of more than 3,000 Arizona teachers in 2008 revealed 50 percent either had cheated themselves or knew a colleague who cheated.
"I think it happens much, much more now," Rideau said. "It happened before NCLB and now we have all this pressure on us. It's had a great impact."