Identifying cheaters

Nevada students' standardized test scores generally have been abysmal over the past decade, so if anybody in the Silver State is cheating on the exams, they're certainly not doing a very good job of it.

But the issue has come to the forefront of late thanks to scandals in a number of cities -- Atlanta, Chicago and the District of Columbia among them -- involving teachers who change answers on standardized tests to improve results.

"It's common sense," Audry Amrein-Beardsley, an education professor at Arizona State University, told USA Today. "The more consequences you attach to a test, the more likely people are to do something artificial to inflate them."

Indeed. As more and more school districts and states look to measure teacher performance by student achievement, the incidents of cheating have become more widespread. And we're not talking about students sneaking in answers or copying off their peers. Instead, many of these scandals involve teachers themselves erasing wrong answers on "fill in the bubble" test sheets and filling in the correct response.

At least 20 states now do an "erasure analysis" of all tests, required under No Child Left Behind, to determine if there are any anomalies. A high number of erasures on questions ultimately marked correctly -- or other statistical analyses -- will raise red flags for those charged with test security.

"It's a very powerful tool to assist states in identifying patterns and determining if something is amiss," Pennsylvania's secretary of education told USA Today.

Not only that, it's a powerful tool to help districts identify teachers who cheat -- and who thus don't have the integrity to be in the classroom with kids.

Nevada is not among the states conducting such checks. It should be. The cost is not overwhelming -- New Mexico will spend $70,000 this year to implement the program. That seems a small price to pay to ensure the integrity of the results, good or bad.

Sue Daellenbach, the Clark County School District's assistant superintendent for assessment and accountability, said the district has strict security protocols that include reviews for irregularities and anomalies, such as unusually large score increases. But conducting erasure analyses "wouldn't be something we disagree with" if funding were identified, the district's testing chief said.

Many who fight imposing more accountability on the public school system highlight the recent spate in cheating as a reason to get rid of many standardized tests altogether, arguing that the obsession with meeting standards hinders real learning and hog-ties teachers to simply "teach to the test."

That's nonsense. Testing is an invaluable tool in measuring results -- and in determining where a system that requires billions of dollars of taxpayer support each year needs reform. Valid testing data are a vital part of that equation.