ATLANTA — It was the year of the test cheating scandal.
From Atlanta to Philadelphia and Washington to Los Angeles, officials have accused hundreds of educators of changing answers on tests or giving answers to students. Just last week, state investigators revealed that dozens of educators in 11 schools in Georgia's Dougherty County either cheated or failed to prevent cheating on 2009 standardized tests.
In July, those same investigators accused nearly 180 educators in almost half of Atlanta's 100 schools of cheating dating back to 2001 — which experts have called the largest cheating scandal in U.S. history. And at least 20 students have been charged on Long Island with cheating on SAT and ACT college-entrance exams by paying someone to take the test for them.
"It's a year in which cheating became a national scandal, a scandal of national proportions," said Bob Schaeffer, a spokesman for the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, which advocates against high-stakes testing. "The Atlanta case forced policymakers and journalists in other jurisdictions to look to see if there's anything similar going on in their backyards."
Experts say some educators have bowed to the mounting pressure under the federal No Child Left Behind law as schools' benchmarks increase each year toward the ultimate goal of having all children reading and doing math at their grade level by 2014. Teachers in Atlanta reported that administrators created a culture of "fear, intimidation and retaliation" where testing goals had to be met no matter what, according to investigators.
"This problem existed before No Child Left Behind, but NCLB has exacerbated the problem, clearly," said Walter Haney, a retired Boston College education professor and expert on cheating. "I think testing is really important, but the problem has been the misuse of test results without looking behind the test scores to see who and who is not tested."
Federal officials have been saying for more than a year that the law, which is four years overdue for a rewrite, doesn't accurately depict what's happening in schools. While federal lawmakers agree the law needs to be fixed, an overhaul has become mired in the partisan atmosphere in Congress.
At President Obama's invitation, states have begun filing waivers to get relief from the law. Under the 11 waivers already filed, states are asking to use a variety of factors to determine whether they pass muster and to choose how schools will be punished if they don't improve. Among the factors that could be used are college-entrance exam scores or the performance of students on Advanced Placement tests.
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At least 39 states, plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, have said they will file waivers, though it is unclear how many will get approved.
In Pennsylvania, an investigation continues into irregularities found in 2009 state standardized tests in reading and math.
The probe began last summer after a routine forensics report flagged "highly improbable" results in 90 schools across the state.
The state education secretary ordered the 50 districts representing the named schools to conduct internal investigations and submit reports to him by Aug. 15.