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How "No Child Left Behind" Unleashed a Nationwide Epidemic of Cheating

On the 10-year anniversary of No Child Left Behind, the school-reform movement is in crisis.

 On Thursday, Mitt Romney made a visit to  a West Philadelphia charter school to tout his education platform, which, as it happens, looks pretty similar to President Obama’s: more privately managed schools and a reliance on high-stakes standardized tests to evaluate teachers.

But on the 10-year anniversary of No Child Left Behind, the school-reform movement that both candidates have embraced is in crisis. Rampant and widespread cheating on high-stakes standardized tests has been uncovered in districts nationwide. The first big scandal erupted in Atlanta, where teachers and administrators are suspected of erasing wrong answers and filling in correct ones, or simply giving students the right answers, at nearly half of city schools. In Philadelphia, one in five district schools is now under investigation, including 11 of the city’s top-tier Vanguard Schools. Cheating or score inflation is suspected in cities including Houston, New York, Detroit and Washington, D.C.

How did cheating become normal in America’s schools?

“No Child Left Behind has created a culture in which people will do anything to keep their jobs,” says Diane Ravitch, an education historian at New York University and a leading critic of corporate-inspired school reform. “There are states that have gamed the systems, there are districts that have gamed the system, there are people who have gained the system.”

President George W. Bush signed No Child Left Behind in 2002, spelling out a reform movement blueprint and unleashing an escalating set of benchmarks compelling teachers to deliver ever-better student scores. NCLB mandates high-stakes standardized testing to monitor student achievement and aggressive intervention into schools that fall short: making Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP, became a matter of a school’s — and increasingly teacher’s — survival.

Test results have been used as the pretext to fire teachers and force schools into becoming privately managed charters, even though  research has shown that corruption-prone charters are not, as a whole, better, and are often much worse than traditional public schools. And the testing mandates have proven to be a bonanza for for-profit education companies like Pearson and Kaplan (the latter is owned by the Washington Post Co.), which produce tests and materials to drill students in preparation.

And the pressure to raise scores continues to build. NCLB requires districts to achieve the impossible goal of demonstrating that  all students are proficient in reading and math by 2014. Unsurprisingly, school districts nationwide are set to fail this mandate. The Obama administration, meanwhile, isn’t offering much of a helping hand. Its Race to the Top initiative uses billions in federal dollars to encourage states to incorporate “student achievement” in evaluating teacher quality. And Obama has conditioned waivers for NCLB’s 2014 deadline on  implementing more Race to the Top reforms — such as removing barriers to charter school growth and, once again, evaluating teachers based on student test scores.

This year alone,  Washington, Colorado and Connecticut have passed laws requiring the inclusion of standardized test scores in teacher evaluations. In March, New York legislators acceded to Gov. Andrew  Cuomo’s proposal to base 40 percent of a teacher evaluation on “student achievement.”

In Los Angeles, one well-regarded teacher at a low-income school  committed suicide after the Los Angles Times posted his low “value-added” score online. The New York Times, though it faced widespread criticism and acknowledged the data’s shortcomings, followed suit in February and published individual teacher test score data online. The New York Post, for its part, did what  could be expected and personally attacked one teacher, by name and photo, as “The Worst Teacher in the City.”

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