Just as graduating seniors compete for scholarship monies for their college educations, the schools which they graduate from are also in a high-stakes contest of their own – competing for funding dollars based on their ranking in standardized assessment test scores.

The good news is that standardized tests can be a measuring stick for districts and educators to learn where their curriculums need adjusting. The bad news is that the pressures to improve testing scores have become so great that some school districts have been known to cheat by tampering with the results.

That happened in Atlanta schools last year. An investigation of suspected grade tampering on tests revealed that 44 of 56 schools had cheated by changing their scores.

The Atlanta school which was at the center of the investigation showed that 70 percent of its students passed the first test given. Under increased security to prevent any grade manipulating, the school was re-tested and this time, less than half of the eighth grade students passed the math exam, a state requirement for promotion. At two other schools that were retested, the math exam scores dropped from 83 to 60 percent in one and from 55 to 31 percent in another.

In all, some 82 persons allegedly confessed to cheating, telling investigators that the superintendent had instructed, encouraged or condoned cheating. Some of those who confessed to tampering were teachers whose job evaluations were directly influenced by the results of the test scores.

Some point at the controversial "No Child Left Behind Act" as putting too much pressure on schools to improve test scores, thus giving competing test scores among schools priority over addressing the individual needs of students.

Earlier this week, education officials in Pennsylvania revealed an investigation was underway on more than three dozen school districts which recorded suspicious scores in the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests in 2009. Officials stated, however, that the probe was being done after red flags were raised following a report using statistical data that considered erasure marks, student demographics, etc.

Shula Nedley, who served as director of the Education Department's Bureau of Assessment and Accountability in 2009, cautioned that the report was ordered as a quality control measure, not because of any suspicions of cheating.

Hazleton is among about 90 other districts with the most irregularities. The number of Hazleton students doing math at grade level improved from 65.5 percent in 2008 to 69.5 percent in 2009. Its reading scores also went up, from 64.9 percent to 68.2 percent.

Francis Antonelli, school superintendent, blamed some of the red flags to missing or incomplete student participation and demographic figures that the district had trouble sending to the state electronically.

He also said the district has been aggressively improving instruction and curriculum to boost performance and improve student achievement. An administrator for the Berwick district, which is also listed in the report, gave a similar reason in explaining the testing anomalies.

We hope that's the case, and that educators in the affected districts didn't resort to fudging scores like the educators in Atlanta. But given the performance-driven environment in which most public schools operate, anything is possible and thus, the testing abnormalities require this investigation.

Jim Zbick

jzbick@tnonline.com