This week, Georgia officials announced perhaps one of the biggest cheating scandals on standardized tests in history, according to the Christian Science Monitor.

Investigators named 178 teachers and principals in more than half of the state's schools who likely participated in cheating for their students on Georgia's standardized tests — many of whom confessed to erasing and then changing test answers after students submitted them.

But Atlanta teachers aren't the only ones who have been investigated and accused of cheating for their students. In March, USA TODAY published a series that investigated this kind of cheating.

They found that a teacher assistant in Florida was suspected of snapping her fingers in code to help students with the correct answers. "At a California elementary school the phrase 'toilet paper' meant a student should subtract or 'wipe away' a number in a math problem. In other states, a teacher would cross her arms if a student marked the wrong answer."

ASU conducted a study and found more than 50 percent of teachers and other educators had cheated on the state tests, whether that was leaving out a multiplication table on the wall or changing a student's answers on a test, the paper found. And state documents from Michigan showed a fourth grade class went from 39 percent proficient one year in math to 100 percent proficient just two years later. The state confirmed cheating occurred, USA TODAY reported.

In May, D.C. school officials were investigating 18 classrooms where cheating on standardized testing was expected to have occurred, according to The Washington Examiner.

Utah has had a couple of cases over the last few years of teachers violating protocol when it comes to administering state tests, said John Jesse, state director of assessment and accountability, but he said most of these are handled at the local level if they do not involve licensure.

Jesse does suspect that as the stakes for tests become ever higher, with more students required to pass and more programs linking test scores to teacher and school performance and evaluations, there will be more violations.

In recent years, FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, says that the number of cheating cases has "exploded … with several now coming to light each week."

"Teachers are afraid of losing their jobs and teachers compel themselves to do whatever they need to do to make sure that they don't lose their jobs because their students meet or don't exceed on the CRCT," one Georgia teacher was quoted as saying by the Associated Press this week. "Everybody was in fear. It is not that the teachers are bad people and want to do it. It is that they are scared."

Georgia investigators came up with three main reasons as to why cheating occurred in so many schools in Atlanta:

1. The targets set by the district were often unrealistic, especially given their cumulative effect over the years. Additionally, the administration put unreasonable pressure on teachers and principals to achieve targets

2. A culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation spread through the district

3. Dr. Hall (the district's superintendent) and her administration emphasized test results and public praise to the exclusion of integrity and ethics

"Virtually every teacher who confessed to cheating spoke of the inordinate stress the district placed on meeting targets and the dire consequences for failure," the report stated. "Dr. Hall articulated it as: 'No exceptions. No excuses.' If the principals did not meet targets within three years, she declared, they will be replaced and 'I will find someone who will meet targets.'"

The report went on to say that "data can be properly used as a tool to assess academic progress. But data can also be used as an abusive and cruel weapon to embarrass and punish classroom teachers and principals or as a pretext to termination. After hundreds of interviews, it has become clear that Dr. Hall and her staff used data as a way to exert oppressive pressure to meeting targets."

But over the years, more and more policymakers and lawmakers seem to be relying on state testing in evaluating teacher performance and many suggest tying test scores to pay.

The Dallas Morning news reported a couple years ago on a survey of more than 2,000 teachers — about 20 percent of the teaching force — in which 73 percent of teachers said they might cheat if their evaluations were tied to student test scores.

According to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, all students should be testing proficient or better by 2014.

"Every time you increase the stakes associated with any testing program, you get more cheating," said John Fremer, a specialist in data forensics who has investigated cheating in several states, in an article in The New York Times last year.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has complained about the law for the last couple of years, calling the law "broken," and recently told Congress that if they do not reauthorize and amend the act, he will do it himself, according to an article in U.S. News last month.

"As it exists now, No Child Left Behind is creating a slow-motion train wreck for children, parents and teachers," he told the media outlet.

But while many educators agree the act does need revisions, some say not to blame the act for the widespread cheating.

39 comments on this story

"Testing was never meant to be an end in itself," the USA TODAY wrote in an Op-Ed several months ago. "It is a tool that came into common use because so many schools were failing to lift students to even minimum standards. Educators had to be made accountable, and they needed goals, regardless of students' economic status. That need hasn't changed, but cheating is clearly a new obstacle, one that has been kept under wraps.

"Now that it's getting the kind of scrutiny it deserves, educators and state officials should have little trouble finding ways to deter it."

EMAIL: slenz@desnews.com

TWITTER: saralenz