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JOHN YDSTIE, Host:

Cheating scandals have rocked a number of school districts across the country this year. That's led several states to look for better ways to detect and prevent tampering with test results.

As NPR's Larry Abramson reports, some say the answer to rampant cheating is constant vigilance.

LARRY ABRAMSON: What happened in Atlanta is hard to imagine. Dozens of administrators and teachers apparently conspired to change answers on standardized tests. When those tests showed big gains, school leaders took the credit. They were caught, in part, because Georgia investigators have been looking for signs of tampering for years.

KATHLEEN MATHERS: We're actually going into our third consecutive year of using eraser analysis on all of our elementary and middle schools tests.

ABRAMSON: Kathleen Mathers runs Georgia's Office of Student Achievement. She says that concerns about cheating led the state to ask test designer McGraw Hill to look extra closely at those Number 2 pencil marks.

MATHERS: And so it can differentiate between an answer choice that is definitely made and intended to be the answer choice, and other choices that were previously made and then erased.

ABRAMSON: Mathers says that analysis cost the state about $27,000 - a small fraction of its testing budget. The data established that in many schools, there were just too many switches from wrong to right.

Testing forensics expert John Fremer says that information alone is just the start.

YDSTIE: The best thing to do is looking for unusual agreement among test takers.

ABRAMSON: Fremer runs Caveon Test Security, which has helped Atlanta and Washington, D.C., investigate suspicious incidents. He says if every student is getting the same answer right - or the same answer wrong - then something might be going on. Investigators also look for unusual spikes in test scores. Sometimes, there's a good explanation for that improvement.

John Fremer says cheating is hard to detect because despite recent scandals, it's still very rare.

FREMER: One or two percent, maybe, of educators don't follow the rules.

ABRAMSON: Pennsylvania is currently looking into patterns of unusual erasures or jumps in achievement. The problem is that not every state follows up on that initial erasure analysis as vigorously as Georgia did. That probe involved dozens of investigators across state government.

If you are shocked that educators would actually tamper with kid's futures, some say this sort of thing might become more common.

GARY MIRON: It's likely to be more and more pressure on teachers and administrators to cheat.

ABRAMSON: Professor Gary Miron, of Western Michigan University, says this problem is part of the troubled legacy of No Child Left Behind. The law said the fate of entire schools would be determined by test scores. Schools that fail can be shut down, and bad test scores can also jeopardize funding. And now, a growing number of states are planning to evaluate teachers based, in part, on test scores.

Gary Miron says before No Child Left Behind, schools tested less often and more carefully.

MIRON: No Child Left Behind required testing to be rolled out at each of the grades between grades three and eight. But with this, that meant that we had to distribute limited, you know, resources for testing across more grades.

ABRAMSON: Miron says that leaves less money to check for tampering. But others in the field say scrutiny of test results costs only a fraction of testing budgets, and should be considered part of the cost of doing business.

John Fremer, of Caveon Test Security, has built a business on this assumption.

FREMER: You're not going to be able to run a state testing program without doing comprehensive analyses of the results. I mean, that ship has already sailed.

ABRAMSON: Most states have joined in an effort to establish a common national curriculum and eventually, a common set of tests. Eventually, they hope to administer most of those tests by computer. The use of computers could make it tougher to tamper with results. Or, it could force investigators to develop a whole new set of tools to find, and stop, cheating on standardized tests.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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