The "Texas Miracle" that helped launch the nationwide accountability movement in education is facing new doubts as allegations surface about possible cheating on test scores. Last week the Houston Independent School District (HISD) - one of the nation's largest - announced an investigation of "suspicious" results on 2004 statewide tests.
The wrangling is being closely watched by districts across the country that are bound by the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, which was modeled in part after the success of Houston schools.
Critics say the possible cheating scandal, and the idea of educators willing to go to such lengths to raise their schools' scores, is further proof that high-stakes testing doesn't work. Supporters say the instances of cheating on such tests are very rare and can be found in every profession.
Whatever the reality, cheating on standardized tests has been making the news with increasing frequency. From Boston to Florida to California, school districts have been investigating claims that educators are providing students with answers, changing answers after the test is over, and giving students extra time.
"The No Child Left Behind Act, which has some very solid goals, when implemented creates an awful lot of trouble in the schools," says John Fremer, a testing expert with 40 years of experience. While he says cheating has been around for as long as there have been tests, the difference in the past few years is that teachers and administrators are heavily involved, "something that's so alien to the concept of teaching."
Some recent examples:
• Earlier this month, an Indiana third-grade teacher was suspended after being accused of tapping students on the shoulder when they marked wrong answers - the state's third alleged incident in as many years.
• In September, Mississippi threw out portions of test scores at nine schools after discovering more than two dozen cases of alleged cheating. One fifth-grade teacher was fired after allegedly helping students on the writing portion of the test.
• And in July, nine Arizona school districts invalidated portions of their test scores after teachers allegedly either read sections of the test to students or gave students extra time to finish. It was the state's 21st case of cheating since 2002.
Such troubles, though often isolated incidents, are leading school districts to take action.
In Ohio, teachers are required to sign a code of ethics and are warned that if they are caught cheating, their licenses may be revoked. Kentucky uses six different versions of the exam in one classroom to cut down on teachers "teaching to the test." In Mesa, Ariz., the school district hires retired principals to wander among classrooms, monitoring the tests. And in South Carolina and four other states, Dr. Fremer's test-security firm has been brought in to analyze student answer sheets for patterns of cheating.
The problem, say many education experts, is that the tests have been tied to teachers' job contacts and bonuses.
"Once the outcome of these tests started to matter, was it any surprise that teachers began to cheat?" asks Steven Levitt, an economics professor at the University of Chicago. "And I think the other side is that the risk reward looks fairly good. The chances of being caught are tiny."
Dr. Levitt analyzed data from Chicago public schools and estimates that serious cases of teacher or principal cheating occur in about 5 percent of elementary school classrooms. He and a colleague from Harvard University created an algorithm for detecting teacher cheating that combines information on unexpected test-score fluctuations and suspicious patterns of student answers. The Chicago School District now uses it every year to monitor cheating.
Experts agree that some of what is dubbed cheating may boil down to confusion over the rules or blurring of ethical line - such as teachers' use of extremely similar practice exams or leaving study aids on the wall during testing.
And while there may be a few deliberate cheaters, overall the testing system is working very well, says Jay Greene, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research in New York. "I liken it to the income-tax system. Everyone knows someone who has cheated on their income taxes, but overall the system works pretty much as designed," he says.
Dr. Greene says the high-stakes tests are doing what they're supposed to do: making sure kids learn the material. But other experts say even that is compromised by teachers narrowing their curriculum to what they know will be on tests.
If an exam asks who the 18th president of the United States was, for instance, the idea is that the child should know who all the presidents were, not just the 18th.
"Cheating is not the most fundamental problem. It's the canary in the coal mine," says Daniel Koretz, who teaches educational measurement at Harvard University. The coal mine, he says, is the "dumbing down" of education to get the desired results.
"I think we are in desperate need of accountability in schools, and tests have to be a part of that," he says. "But it's a mistake to do it this way, to set arbitrary targets and expect schools to meet them." Under the No Child Left Behind Act, states have 12 years to bring children up to academic proficiency or lose federal funding.
Back in Houston, the cheating scandal was uncovered by a Dallas Morning News analysis, which found surprising gaps in almost 400 of 7,700 Texas public schools - instances of students earning some of the state's lowest scores in reading, but its highest in math, for instance, or classes that ranked in the state's top 10 percent in reading one year, only to sink to the bottom 10 percent in the next.
That's what happened at Wesley Elementary, a Houston school that, ironically, had been featured on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and cited by President Bush for its turnaround in the 1990s.
HISD has acted quickly, creating an Office of Inspector General to look into the allegations. "We must administer a testing process with total integrity," said Superintendent Abe Saavedra at a news conference last week. "And on those few occasions when someone decides to violate the rules, HISD will take swift and decisive action to stop it."
But cheating won't stop until the high-stakes testing system is thrown out, says Linda McSpadden McNeil, an education professor at Rice University who has studied the issue extensively. She believes No Child Left Behind is treating education like a business, with strangers managing schools remotely.
"You could have a great arts program, an unsafe playground, your ceiling falling in, or national merit scholars," says Dr. McNeil. "But all they look at is the passing rate of the children in your building."
The new regulations have had the worst impact on minority schools, she says, many of which are considered "low performing;" under pressure to get their scores up, these schools were the first to dump traditional curriculum and do test prep almost exclusively.
"That is not adding up to any cumulative knowledge," she says. "The No Child Left Behind legislation is really a very expensive ruse to keep from having to make the serious investment to make our schools really good schools. That's the biggest way the system cheats."