The plague started in Georgia, then made its way to Washington, Philadelphia and New Jersey. No, it’s not the trailer for “Contagion,” September’s big pandemic movie, but a distressing number of suspected cheating scandals in elementary and middle schools.

The No Child Left Behind Act, enacted in 2002, didn’t invent standardized tests, but it set national standards based on them. Meeting those standards now plays a huge role in determining school financing, teacher promotion and student advancement.

The theory of high-stakes testing and the wisdom of the legislation are subjects for another day. The question now, though, is this: If so much depends on the test, then shouldn’t it be better protected from manipulation?

The suspected cheating, it’s worth noting, is not by students but by teachers and school administrators, whose career prospects are at stake. The scale of the problem became apparent in October 2010, when agents from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation descended on 56 Atlanta-area schools to ask why a statistically surprising number of student answer sheets had shown wrong answers erased and correct ones inserted.

Investigations by education officials and newspapers, particularly USA Today, have also exposed evidence of wrongdoing in Arizona, California, Florida, Michigan, Texas, Ohio and elsewhere. In Washington, D.C., which had been held up as a beacon of educational reform under former schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, officials are now scrutinizing dozens of schools.

Monitor Answer Sheets

Obviously, the first line of defense against cheating is at the schools themselves, where states and districts should mandate strict prevention measures. Schools are generally required to have testing protocols and compliance officers but would be wise to step up oversight of testing booklets and answer sheets before and after the exam period, and to bring in independent monitors such as former teachers on testing days.

Another idea is to have the tests administered by a private party. Yes, that would cost money, but so does an investigation like Georgia’s, which will probably run into the millions of dollars.

States must also be more willing to use available technology to catch wrongdoing. The scanners used to grade the answer sheets, provided by companies such as Pearson Plc, can detect erasures and raise a red flag if there are an unusually high number, especially of wrong-to-right switches. Other indicators of potential trouble include a single class or grade vastly outperforming the others at a school; a prevalence of identical answers, wrong and right, within a class; and large numbers of students doing better on the harder questions of an exam than on the easier ones.

While the testing companies are able to supply all this data, many states do not ask for it or fail to look into suspicious results -- after all, nobody likes to seek out bad news. Investigations by private companies can cost thousands of dollars per school and subject principals and teachers to uncomfortable questioning. Unfortunately, recent history shows just how necessary they are.

As a prod, any legislative reform should tweak the NCLB act’s grant-making to reward states that are more active on cheating prevention. It should also ensure that schools return any money they received for gains that they didn’t truly achieve and that states provide avenues for whistleblowers to come forward.

In the end, it is in a state’s interest to nip cheating in the bud -- if left unchecked, it will fester, leading to a scandal that can scar a school district for a generation. Just ask the parents in Atlanta.

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