K-12 education in America is, nationally, a disaster—that is something everyone seems to agree on. But on the local level, the parents of schoolchildren are hearing a different story. In a 1988 study an educational watchdog group called Friends for Education discovered that all of the 50 states were reporting that their elementary and secondary students were testing “above the national norm” in achievement. John Jacob Cannell, who heads this group, calls it the “Lake Wobegon effect,” referring to Garrison Keillor’s mythic town in which “all the men are strong, all the women are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

In a follow-up study conducted last spring, Cannell found that a major reason for those uniformly high test scores was cheating. In response to an ad Cannell placed in Education Week, he received a number of letters from teachers maintaining that cheating is common. And in those few states that do make an effort to investigate cheating, the number of incidences is shockingly high, California has found 50 schools cheating within the last three years. Chicago investigated 40 schools in 1985, 17 that were “above suspicion” as a control and 23 that were suspected. The testing officials there found that not only were 70 percent of the suspected schools cheating, but so were 12 percent of the control group.

Other indications of cheating are high elementary reading scores that mysteriously peter out as the student moves into secondary school, and states that rank low in national tests such as the ACT (administered with high security), but high in achievement tests (administered under the aegis of local superintendents with often little or no security). Cannell cites evidence that teachers are tailoring their curricula to fit the test questions, that teachers and administrators are teaching the test to their students, even that teachers are walking around during a test and indicating to students where an answer should be “doublechecked.” What is more shocking is that in those states where cheating has been discovered, disciplinary action was either not taken at all or relatively mild.

Many of Cannell’s proposed solutions are remarkably simple. He suggests that teachers should not test their own classes, for example, but switch with other teachers in their school, as testing their own classes gives them too great a personal interest in high test scores. He makes clear that it would not take an enormous amount of either effort or money to gather accurate test scores. What seems to be missing is the desire.

Unfortunately, as Cannell does not say explicitly in his report but as his evidence makes clear, what we have is the collusion of several parties, all anxious to hide the truth that Johnny can’t read. For teachers and their unions, merit pay is often tied to test scores. Administrators are subject to de-funding from their state legislators and hostile local news reports if scores are low. And some publishers, out to make a buck, will not scruple to offer a district tests certain to raise their scores. The real push for a true indication of achievement is going to have to come from parents—for the simple reason that parents are the only group vitally interested in the education of children who will put the welfare of those children before their own. Eternal vigilance will always be the price of decent public education. (KD)