By Christopher Paslay

'I was thrown out of college for cheating on the metaphysics exam," Woody Allen once said. "I looked into the soul of the boy sitting next to me."

Cheating isn't usually a laughing matter, though, as the Philadelphia School District is learning. A recently revealed 2009 report by the state Department of Education flagged 22 district-run schools and seven charters for suspicious results on standardized tests. Several city teachers have also reported breaches in test security at their schools, although an internal investigation by the Philadelphia School District concluded that claims of cheating were unfounded.

The problem with cheating on state tests is not limited to Philadelphia, however. The state education secretary has asked 40 districts statewide to look into testing irregularities and expanded the review to tests from this year and last year. And a recent report by the Georgia governor's office showed that Atlanta public-school teachers altered student answer sheets on state exams for years.

A closer look at America's culture of high-stakes testing may explain this apparent trend.

Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, schools must meet certain annual benchmarks on state math and reading tests or face the possibility of an overhaul. Under NCLB, a public school deemed to be "failing" can be taken over by a private education-management organization, turned into a charter school, or shut down completely. Principals can be fired and entire teaching staffs can be replaced in the process.

In short, there is incredible pressure on schools to get their students to pass state tests. To people outside the classroom, this probably makes perfect sense. If schools are failing, if students aren't learning enough, there should be a shake-up, just as there would be in a failing private-sector institution.

The problem is that the goals of No Child Left Behind are unrealistic and, for many schools, flat out unattainable. The notion that all students in America's public schools will be proficient in reading and math by 2014 is pie in the sky. To score as "proficient" on Pennsylvania's test, for example, high school students must be able to interpret complex works of literature and handle advanced algebraic and geometric functions. Many well-educated, professional adults would struggle to perform these tasks.

But No Child Left Behind wasn't really about feasible goals anyway. It was mostly about control. As those familiar with politics and public schools know, control of education means control of vast resources, including money, jobs, and votes. And that's one reason why, when it comes to education in the United States, the glass will always remain half-empty. That way, teachers, parents, and principals will continue to lack real control, and politicians can stay in the driver's seat.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has admitted that NCLB needs to be fixed. In March, he told members of Congress that as many as 80 percent of the nation's public schools could be labeled as failing under the law.

This isn't necessarily due to bad teaching, although no one will deny that there is much room for improvement in that area. Schools also struggle to reach state testing benchmarks because there are variables beyond their control that dramatically affect learning. According to University of Washington education researcher Dan Goldhaber, as much as 60 percent of student achievement can be attributed to nonschool factors. Even the best teachers, led by the brightest principals, can't always overcome poverty, domestic violence, addiction, teen pregnancy, and bad parenting.

There is a variable, however, that schools can control: which bubbles on an answer sheet are filled in.

Although cheating on state tests should not be condoned, it stems partly from a broken education reform that sets unattainable goals. A thorough overhaul of No Child Left Behind would do much to improve school morale and put a stop to systematic cheating on state exams.

Christopher Paslay is a Philadelphia schoolteacher and the author of "The Village Proposal," to be published in September. His blog, "Chalk and Talk," is at http://chalkandtalk.wordpress.com.