The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

50 ways schools ‘cheat’ on high-stakes standardized tests


In March 2013, Atlanta Schools superintendent Beverly Hall and 34 other educators and administrators were charged in a 65-count indictment on racketeering charges in what prosecutors say was a conspiracy to cheat on high-stakes standardized tests. Those 35 were just a fraction of the more than 175 principals and teachers found by state investigators in 2011 to have cheated to make it seem as if students were doing better on tests than they actually performed because the scores affected the adults’ jobs.

Many of those educators have been fired or quit since, and 21 pleaded guilty — and received probation — to an array of charges including making false statements to authorities. (You can read scathing excerpts from the original indictment here.) Now a dozen of the indicted educators are going on trial, though Hall, who prosecutors say was the mastermind behind the cheating enterprise, won’t be one of them. Hall, who is suffering from breast cancer, won an indefinite delay in her trial from a judge.

The start of the proceedings for the Atlanta 12 is a good time to look at all the ways that some school administrators and educators “cheat” on high-stakes tests. It was compiled from government and media reports by the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, known as FairTest, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending the misuse and abuse of standardized tests. Here are 50-plus ways to “cheat”:


Fail to store test materials securely

Encourage teachers to view upcoming test forms before they are administered

Teach to the test by ignoring subjects not on exam

Drill students on actual test items

Share test items on Internet before administration

Practice on copies of previously administered “secure” tests

Administer “practice” version(s) or the real test to prepare selected students

Exclude likely low-scorers from enrolling in school

Hold-back low scorers from tested grade

“Leap-frog” promote some students over tested grade

Transfer likely low-scoring students to charter schools with no required tests

Push likely low scorers out of school or enroll them in GED programs

Falsify student identification numbers so low scorers are not assigned to correct demographic group

Urge low-scoring students to be absent on test day

Leave test materials out so students can see them before exam

Set up classroom desks and chairs to facilitate answer copying


Let high scorers take tests for others

Overlook “cheat sheets” students bring into classroom

Post hints (e.g. formulas, lists, etc) on walls or whiteboard

Write answers on black/white board, then erase before supervisor arrives

Allow students to look up information on Web with electronic devices

Overlook calculator use where prohibited

Encourage reliance on special calculator programs that can answer questions

Ignore test-takers copying or sharing answers with each other

Permit students to go to restroom in groups

Shout-out correct answers

Use thumbs-up/thumbs-down signals to indicate right and wrong responses

Tell students to “double check” erroneous responses

Pass out notes with correct answers

Read questions aloud to students not allowed this accommodation

Urge students who have completed sections to work on others

Allow class extra time to complete test

Reclassify native English speakers as English Language Learners to give them additional time

Leave classroom unattended during test

Warn staff if test security monitors are in school

Refuse to allow test security personnel access to testing rooms

Cover doors and windows of testing rooms to prevent monitoring

Give unnecessary accommodations to students without disabilities


Allow students to “make up” portions of the exam they failed to complete

Invite staff to “clean up” answer sheets before transmittal to scoring company

Permit teachers to score own students’ tests

Fill in answers on items left blank

Re-score borderline exams to “find points” on constructed response items

Erase erroneous responses and insert correct ones

Provide false demographic information for test-takers to assign them to wrong categories for the “annual yearly progress” required by No Child Left Behind

Fail to store completed answer sheets securely

Destroy answer sheets from low-scoring students

Report low-scorers as having been absent on testing day

Fraudulently withdraw likely low-scorers from school

Share content with educators/students who have not yet taken the test via e-mail, text, Facebook or Twitter

Fail to perform data forensics on unusual score gains

Ignore “flagged” results from erasure analysis

Refuse to interview personnel with potential knowledge of improper practices

Threaten discipline against testing-impropriety whistleblowers

Fire staff who persist in raising questions

Fabricate test security documentation for state education department investigators

Lie to law enforcement personnel