“If you think there’s cheating now under school accountability, wait until what you see under teacher accountability,” said Scott Marion, associate director at the Center for Assessment, a not-for-profit firm that works with about 30 states to develop tests and teacher accountability systems.

The newspaper reported that officials might be loath to report or even acknowledge cheating. In Atlanta, for example, accusations of cheating were met with denials not only from the school district but from local business leaders.

“There is typically little to no incentive for anyone to take threats to test security seriously,” said Greg Cizek, a professor and testing expert at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Educators are happy when test scores go up; parents are happy when their children do well; students are pleased when they are declared to be ‘proficient’; the public is assuaged when all schools appear to be increasing learning.”

With no motivation from the federal government and with little reason to look for cheating on their own, most states designed security systems that have failed to find blatant cheating even when the evidence is right in front of them, the newspaper found.

Records show some state officials failed to act when whistleblowers stepped forward. Some states did nothing to investigate schools where students posted almost impossible gains on tests from one year to the next.

For more news about test security, see:

Students’ online photos of Calif. tests delay release of scores

Tighter security for SAT, ACT in wake of cheating

Rotten apples: Coping with educators who cheat

Many states, the newspaper reported, make it easier for educators to cheat by using weak security procedures. Forty-four allow teachers to proctor tests for their own students. The proctor’s job is to ensure the security of the test; for example, making sure no unauthorized materials are used, enforcing time limits and reporting irregularities.

State and district records from multiple states show that some teachers are not above guiding their students to the right answers.

A teacher at a Phoenix elementary school, for example, told a colleague that she’d used red and green M&Ms during a test to nudge students toward the right answers. If she set a red M&M on a child’s desk, that signaled the pupil had the wrong answer and should do the problem over again. If she put a green one on the desk, that meant the child had the right answer and should move on.

Sharon Rideau, an elementary and middle school teacher in California, told the red-and-green M&M story in her doctoral thesis, which focused on cheating. Rideau’s survey of more than 3,000 Arizona teachers in 2008 revealed 50 percent either had cheated themselves or knew a colleague who cheated.

“I think it happens much, much more now,” Rideau said. “It happened before NCLB, and now we have all this pressure on us. It’s had a great impact.”