We can say this of the recent cheating scandal at a Maryland school--it shows that the new drive for "character education" is working. But it's working on the kids, not the teachers: It was fifth-grade children at Potomac Elementary School in a suburb of Washington, D.C., one of the nation's top-ranked public primary schools, who reported that their principal and one of their teachers had asked them to do funny things on a state test. Other teachers at Potomac Elementary, a county investigation found, knew about the funny business but said nothing. The kids recognized cheating when they saw it, and spoke up.

So at least something good comes out of the latest testing imbroglio. But this is hardly the ideal way for kids to learn right from wrong. What does school-run cheating tell us about educational ethics in an era of testing mania?

Like many states, Maryland now attaches huge significance to its annual assessment tests--funding bonuses are awarded to schools that do well, teachers and principals from high-performing schools tend to be promoted, and parents vie in Darwinian fashion to get kids into the best-ranked school districts. But unlike low-performing schools where cheating sometimes occurs out of desperation, Potomac Elementary was doing quite well in test scores and prestige. Somehow, that wasn't enough for parents. They pressured the school not just to finish high but to hit number one. The pressure was particularly intense at Potomac in part because many parents mistakenly believe kids' performance on state ranking tests are the first step in helping them prepare for college entrance exams, and in part for property-values snobbery. As everyone knows, school ratings, snob indexes, and real estate are inexorably linked. Yet, as Montgomery County School superintendent Jerry Weast noted disconsolately after the scandal broke, "The tests were never designed for setting real-estate values."

Nor is state-test cheating confined to the Beltway. In New York City, 32 public schools and dozens of teachers are being investigated for various allegations of boosting state-exam performance. Eastgate Elementary school in Columbus, Ohio, a "school of excellence" visited by President Clinton this winter, was hit a few weeks later by a state-test cheating scandal. And many public schools in Houston are under scrutiny on allegations that teachers erased wrong exam answers and wrote in correct ones.

Though politicians of all stripes have used state-run tests in campaigning, the most prominent current example is Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush, who says that one proof he is a "reformer with results" is that the percentage of public-school children passing the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills test has risen from 53% to 78% during his governorship. But how much of that figure may turn out to be based on cheating? In addition to Houston, 10 other Texas public school districts are being investigated for either overt dishonesty or questionable forms of coaching to bolster state test scores. A telling indicator is that, in Texas, scores on state-assessment tests have risen impressively, while those on nationally administered tests have nudged up only a bit. That's progress, but also an indication that many schools are overcoaching or even rigging the state test result.

The testing mania began after publication of the gloomy 1983 report "A Nation at Risk," in which a government commission depicted public schools as collapsing and said that strict assessment would be needed both to improve kids' performance and to drive out the anything-goes pedagogic liberalism then in fashion. Testing has clearly had positive effects in terms of refocusing schools on core education. For instance, when "A Nation at Risk" was published, only 31% of high school graduates had passed an advanced science course; now it's 60%. The share of public-school kids taking and mastering other core subjects is rising, too.

But the new assessment tests are as much political as educational, created by legislators to give voters something measurable for their tax dollars. The system places intense stress on schools to show better results every year, so that the governor, the mayor, and politicians down the line can claim credit for good results. This breeds an atmosphere of deceit--and fudging.

So does the fact that state tests are handled by the schools themselves. Nationally run examinations, such as the SAT, are almost impossible to cheat on--the booklets come in at the last minute, non-school proctors administer the test taking, and packets are then whisked off for automated scoring by computers that, among other things, scan for abnormal patterns of erasure marks. State assessment tests, on the other hand, are administered and scored by the personnel of the school being graded. Between the pressure to claim gains and on-site control, individual schools have both "motive and opportunity," as a detective would say, to bend testing rules.

This brings us to the question of what message the test-cheating scandals sends students. After all, this isn't cheating by the kids--it's cheating by the adults. In Montgomery County, where Potomac Elementary is located (as is my child's school, three miles away), character-education policy states, "The school itself must embody good character...the daily life of classrooms...must be imbued with core values such as concern and respect for others, responsibility and honesty." Instead, kids saw official cheating followed by attempts to weasel out of the blame.

The principal resigned, but did so for what were essentially plea-bargain reasons. She has said that she is guilty of nothing more than "errors in judgment" and should not be held accountable because members of her family were ill. Family illness may be a good reason to go on leave or be temporarily switched to a lower-stress post, but it is not a rationalization for cheating. What kind of message does it send to kids when the principal breaks the rules and then denies responsibility for her own actions? Kids know that if you really cheated, you must admit it--or if you really did nothing wrong, you should stand firm. Instead, they hear flimsy excuses; that part is almost as bad as the cheating itself.

As the pendulum swings from too little reliance on testing to too much, the outbreak of institutional cheating may be the force that returns schools to a happy medium--some tests and assessment, but not an ongoing obsession with statistics and school rankings. After all, kids are endlessly taught that grades matter and must be honestly won. If teachers themselves are cheating, why should a kid believe anything else they teach?

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