For a while it seemed as though Forest Brook High School in Houston was a shining example of school reform. In 2005, after years of rock-bottom test scores, results shot up: 95 percent of eleventh graders passed the state science test. Administrators praised the hard work of the teachers. The governor awarded the school a $165,000 grant. But that same year, the Texas Education Agency hired a company called Caveon Test Security to ensure that the state’s standardized-test results were valid. Caveon—along with an investigative series by The Dallas Morning News—found a host of irregularities at Forest Brook. The state eventually cleared the school’s administrators but made sure last year’s testing was monitored by an outside agency. The scores at Forest Brook plunged Last year, only 39 percent passed science.
It’s a jarring but common story. While there have always been students who crib an answer or two, lately teachers, principals and school administrators are being snared for gaming—and sometimes outright cheating on—standardized tests. Under the six-year-old federal education-reform law No Child Left Behind, scores on statewide exams have become the single yardstick by which school success is measured. Struggling schools are being penalized—and some are even slated to be taken over if tests scores fail to rise. Teachers are under pressure to show that kids are learning more, and if they do that, even by fudging the results they can help their borderline school survive. Nowhere is that pressure more intense than Texas, the state that was the incubator for the federal law. In 2005, Caveon found that 700 public schools had suspicious test scores—and though all but a few schools were cleared, the state education commissioner resigned amid the controversy and new testing regulations were put in place.