Staff helped pupils to cheat in exams, a government investigator found. A special investigation uncovered widespread cheating going back five years, coinciding with pressure for schools to improve scores in national tests.
The cheating documented by the schools inspector, Edward Stancik, involved 32 elementary and middle schools, 43 teachers and two headteachers.
Although reports in recent months have lamented the spread of cheating in high schools and universities, blamed in part on opportunities afforded by the Internet and in part on parental pressure on children to succeed, it is not pupils but teachers who are the culprits in the New York City scandal.
Mr Stancik's report said all the schools involved registered remarkable improvements in scores in the standardised reading and mathematics tests. In two cases, improvements allowed the schools to be removed from the city's list of failing schools.
The most extreme example cited was School No 234 in the Bronx, where the head, Evelyn Hey, gave nine-year-olds practice tests with questions from the real tests and told them how to correct wrong answers. The result was a 22 per cent increase in the school's test performance.
The report said: "Their purpose was simply to improve their own reputations and further their own careers by creating the illusion that they were doing a good job."
The Clinton administration has made raising test scores a priority and cities and states have responded by making curriculums more test-orientated, requiring children with low grades to attend special summer courses, keeping them back a year if they still perform poorly, and making pupils' performance a factor in teachers' career advancement.
In some areas bonuses are offered for teachers in classes or schools with improved scores.
While the focus on scores permits parents to compare schools' performance and appears to have produced some improvement, it is not without its critics, who complain that scores are being emphasised to the exclusion of a school's other achievements.
There remains a wide disparity - in funding, facilities and performance - between schools in rich and poor areas. The problems are especially acute in big cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, where most pupils in publicly funded schools are black, Hispanic or the children of recent immigrants.