The board told the Tribune that 2010 and 2011 incidents already were under review for possible educator discipline, though no certification action has been taken.

Violating the standards, ethics or rules related to security, administration, monitoring or scoring of state achievement exams is "unprofessional conduct" under state law, and grounds for revoking or suspending an educator's certificate. That action would block educators from working in public schools and some private schools that require certified staff.

Revocation or suspension isn't mandatory in cheating cases, and experts say such action has been uncommon nationwide until recently.

A widespread cheating scandal in Atlanta led to recent revocations of several educator certificates by the Georgia Professional Standards Commission. Such decisions must be made based on the severity of each case, said Paul Shaw, director of the commission's ethics division. The state is trying to prevent educators disciplined locally from being able to move easily to other jobs, he said.

A clearinghouse of the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification tracks adverse actions against educators, so state officials can check for suspensions and revocations before they let educators work in their states, Executive Director Roy Einreinhofer said.

If teachers are involved in cheating, his view is "that would call for revocation and suspension of at least some kind," Einreinhofer said. "It defeats the whole purpose of a high-stakes test if you've got teachers changing answers."

Under Illinois law, the state school superintendent must "further investigate" upon receiving evidence of unprofessional conduct, including state testing violations, and determine if discipline is appropriate. If discipline is pursued, a written notice must be sent so an educator can ask for a hearing. If no hearing is requested, the educator's certificate will be revoked or suspended.

Before mid-2009, the notice offering a hearing had to be sent out "upon receipt of evidence" — the law didn't include language requiring further investigation.

With no money to hold hearings, the state took "a very narrow view of what constituted sufficient evidence," said state board spokeswoman Mary Fergus. The agency didn't send out any notices related to testing misconduct between at least 2004 and 2009, and one notice has been sent in connection with 2010 and 2011 cases, which are still being reviewed.

"There is no statute of limitations governing this review, and we believe that we are still upholding the law by giving these potential cheating cases another look now that we have the funds to do so," Fergus said.

The disciplinary cases aren't easy, said Darren Reisberg, general counsel at the Illinois State Board of Education.

"The problem is that you have to make a determination internally that you will have a sufficient enough case to be able to win before a hearing officer in a pretty significant trial," he said.

Local districts submit their cheating investigations to the state, often including interviews of students and staff and sometimes admissions from educators, records show. But Reisberg said those documents "would not satisfy a hearing officer in terms of rules of evidence. We would have to re-create that case. Kids would have to be testifying and be the subject of cross-examination."

State versus local

The last certification action related to testing misconduct was in 2004, when the state found a west-central Illinois educator distributed copies of an 11th-grade state exam to faculty early to improve students' test scores, records show. His secondary certificate was suspended for five years, but his grade school certificate was suspended for just five months. He began teaching elementary school in the same North Greene district the next year.

Since then, local officials have been on their own in dealing with educator discipline in testing cases.

In Paw Paw school district, west of the Chicago region, Superintendent Robert Priest was surprised when he called the state in 2009 about a teacher who resigned after his district's investigation into alleged testing violations at Paw Paw Elementary School.

"I asked, 'What about any punitive action on the state's part for the teacher?' They said, 'That's not in our area. It's really up to the district to do it, and if you want to take punitive action, that is your prerogative,'" Priest recalled.

"I think it should be the state's responsibility to take punitive action," Priest told the Tribune.

Records show that the teacher who resigned, Sue Beckstrom, denied allegations of reviewing students' writing exams, making suggestions to them and writing in their test booklets. She could not be reached for comment.