BOSTON — PUBLIC demand for improved performance from local schools in the United States is putting pressure on school districts to find ways to raise scores on standardized achievement tests. These tests frequently are the only barometers for measuring how well pupils are doing in school. As a result, they also have come to signal how well teachers are teaching and ultimately how effectively public schools are educating.
In some cases this is leading to cheating by school personnel.
A teacher in Rochester, N.Y., who requested anonymity, says that in the last three years, the pressure on teachers in her school to produce high test scores has grown tremendously. She has been given an answer key along with tests, she says, adding that this never used to happen. Some veteran teachers have vowed to do whatever it takes to have good results; rookies have been reduced to tears because of the pressure, she says.
``It's very demoralizing and confusing. It pits teacher against teacher. No one knows what the standard is. Some teachers read the problems to students,'' she says.
Observers say the problem has developed because the stakes have grown so high. ``All the pressure has built up because these tests are one of few indicators we have of how well kids are doing in school,'' says Walter Haney, senior research associate at the Center for the Study of Testing at Boston College.
``We use test results from everything from diagnosing students' individual deficiencies, to holding teachers accountable, to holding schools accountable. You can't use it for all those purposes without it serving some of them not well at all.''
Cheating ranges from alteration of answers by teachers or principals, to giving teachers the questions ahead of time to ``teach the test,'' to using the same test year after year so students will get to know the questions, to using old tests with outdated norms so the students will be smarter than the test.
Cheating was found in 40 California elementary schools in 1988, according to the state department of education.
But things are starting to change. Last year, Texas passed tough legislation that holds test publishers liable for triple damages for selling tests with inaccurate or outdated norms.
Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Tennessee have totally revamped their standardized testing program. Kentucky is going to start, and West Virginia and South Carolina are in the early stages of reform.
Part of the impetus for the changes may have come from the efforts of a physician named John Cannell who has been a one-man watchdog over the issue of cheating on standardized achievement tests. He singled out the six states above as well as North Carolina and Georgia as having systematic cheating. Of the eight, only North Carolina and Georgia are not planning major changes, he says.
Dr. Cannell got started on this when working in a small town in West Virginia. Many of the teens he treated had problems with drug abuse, teen pregnancy, and depression. Yet, he says, principals or guidance counselors said they all tested well in standardized achievement tests.
But independent testing outside the school placed them years behind their class, he says. That led him to examine standardized achievement test scores in school districts around the country.
He published two startling reports. One showed that despite a national consensus that public schools are in trouble, more than 90 percent of all school districts said their students scored above average. Dr. Cannell calls that the ``Lake Woebegon Effect,'' after the children in Garrison Keillor's mythical town, who were all ``above average.''
A second report found a pattern of cheating among teachers and principals to make their schools look good.
It particularly harms underachieving students, Cannell says, because the distorted test scores make them ineligible for remedial programs that they otherwise would be entitled to.
``These tests are the internal framework that allows substandard schools to continue,'' says Cannell. ``Without the tests schools would have to reform - they would have nowhere to hide.''
Cannell says teachers wrote to him of pressure from superintendents to change students' answer sheets, give students more than the alloted time, use exact test questions to review for the test, or make copies of the test to give the students.
His studies drew heavy flack from test publishers and other critics. But two years ago the US Department of Education funded an independent study at the Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Teaching, that confirmed his basic findings. And his efforts are reported in the Report of the National Commission on Testing and Public Policy, being released May 24.
Other, more subtle ways exist to distort test scores as well, Dr. Haney says. ``Schools can choose tests that match their curriculum or alter their curriculum to match the test. This is in fact a more prevalant issue and it's having much more of an impact on distoring test scores.''
``All of this is pointing to a need for reassessment,'' says Christopher Carpenter, spokesman for the New York state department of education. ``I predict in the next few years you'll see an entirely different method of [national] assessment.''