03/28/2012 12:49 pm ET Updated May 28, 2012

High Stakes Testing: Who's Cheating Whom?

I talked to a first-grade teacher some time back who told me she was retiring, and when I asked her what made her decide that it was time to leave the classroom, she said, "When they handed me the script." In light of recent news developments, I began to wonder: what if they had also handed her an eraser?

I ask that question not to be provocative, but as a sad commentary on the corruptive influence high-stakes tests have had on our students, teachers and schools. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Cox newspapers investigation found "suspect" scores on standardized tests in school districts across the country. The paper's analysis does not prove that any widespread cheating occurred; it merely points to unusual test score swings.

It would be unfair to pass premature judgment on any of these school systems. The story will undoubtedly trigger a thorough review -- as it should. As educators, we should never condone cheating of any kind for any reason. Likewise, we should never miss an opportunity to underscore the possible consequences when real learning and effective teaching are sacrificed at the altar of high test scores.

Under No Child Left Behind, students as young as 6 or 7 years old are subjected to weeks of preparation for high stakes tests. Because math and reading are the dominant testing subjects, history, civics, music and art are squeezed out of the school day. For the last 10 years we have shortchanged countless children because of NCLB's overemphasis on standardized multiple choice tests. Or as Gary Miron, professor of education at Western Michigan University, wrote: "The bigger problem is a more serious type of cheating -- one that's perfectly legal and apparently acceptable. Students are being cheated of a broader education..."

Tests shouldn't be used to punish schools, as is the case under NCLB, or to pigeonhole students or their teachers. Educators aren't alone in being fed up with narrow, punitive accountability measures. Parents also want well-designed, timely assessments that monitor individual student progress across a range of subjects and skills, one of the key findings in a new study by the Northwest Evaluation Association.

We should use assessments to help teachers improve their practice, help students evaluate their own strengths and needs, and focus help on the students and subjects that need attention.

Let's get back to the core purpose of public education -- ensuring students have access to a great education that prepares them for lifelong learning and success -- and leave the pressure cooker for pot roasts.