NYC Schools Get an A Plus in Duplicity

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You kids don't know how easy you have it. Back in my day, we walked to school, uphill both ways, in the snow or rain or sleet, mind you — and on top of all that, we even took our own tests. That was in the days before teachers and administrators at 32 New York City public schools allegedly started "helping" their students with statewide tests, when kids actually had to know something about reading, writing and arithmetic to get passed to the next grade. For the last five years, claims special investigator Edward Stancik, some kids have just waltzed into class, written their test answers on notebook paper, and sat back as their teachers filled in the correct answers on the little bubble forms. And then, clutching their students' miraculously improved test results and passing rates, teachers and principals got raises, promotions and general acclaim.

Standards among America's public schools have been pushed relentlessly — some say unrealistically — upward in recent years, fueled by parent frustration over their children's poor performance and administrators' embarrassment over their schools' reputations. But while higher standards are an admirable goal, they can hurt the students they were meant to help. "There's an argument to be made that the bar has been raised too high, too quickly," says TIME writer Jodie Morse. "And although nothing excuses cheating by teachers, we have a responsibility to look into what kind of pressure they're under to have their students improve." Still, the main responsibility is to do something to help the real victims: Five classes of New York City public school students who, after being passed on the merit of their teachers' test scores, probably can't perform at their current grade level.