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You are here: Home Newsroom Our Ideas Themes in the News Archive April 2013 'If You Ain't Cheating, You Ain't Trying'?

'If You Ain't Cheating, You Ain't Trying'?

  • 04-04-2013
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Week of April 1-5, 2013


This sports adage, attributable to multiple sources, seems to excuse cheating as an admirable expression of one’s urge to win in competition. Evidently, school superintendents and other school personnel are as susceptible as sports heroes and lots of others who function in environments where winning delivers the rewards and rules the day. It’s in this competitive vein that our nation’s signature education program is called “Race to the Top,” not an admittedly less catchy, “Schools Must Teach Every Child Well.”

A months-long investigation into one of the nation’s largest test-cheating scandals culminated with a steady stream of almost three dozen educators surrendering themselves to authorities this week. Indictments came down against Atlanta Public Schools former Superintendent Beverly Hall, along with 34 other administrators, specialists, coordinators and teachers, on multiple counts of attempting to falsify students’ standardized test scores, including racketeering, fraud, and making false statements (Washington Post, New York Times, The Atlantic).

Atlanta’s cheating is believed to have dated back to 2001. Much of the investigation has focused on Hall’s heavy push to increase test scores at any cost. “Not only were the children deprived, a lot of teachers were forced into cheating, forced into criminal acts,” said Michael Bowers, former Georgia attorney general who investigated. “Now, granted, they did wrong, but a lot them did this to protect jobs” (CNN).

This is not the first test cheating scandal, and it may not even be the largest or most comprehensive (considering we only know the extent of Atlanta’s problems after the governor ordered an independent investigation). According to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest), cheating has been documented in 37 states and the District of Columbia. FairTest also noted a spectrum of ways that adults cheat on high-stakes tests, from blatantly giving answers to teaching to the test.

Atlanta provides an illustrative example of how a high-stakes testing culture distorts and then replaces an educational culture—what happens when incentives for high scores replace incentives for learning. In Atlanta, as elsewhere, those scoring incentives can lead to criminal fraud, gaming, and negligent representation.

Criminally fraudulent actions among adults include having students erase and fix mistakes, changing students’ answers after the test, telling students the right answers, or even letting other students take exams.

Gaming involves manipulating the schooling circumstances so the tests measure something other than what they are intended to measure—namely what students have actually learned. It could include teaching “test-taking skills,” such as reminding students to “fill in all the blank answers with choice ‘C’ before you hand in your answer sheet.” Sometimes schools encourage likely low-scorers to stay home on the day of the exam; or they might discourage special education or English learner students from attending the school. A common practice is to concentrate resources on “bubble” kids—students who are scoring just below “proficient”—while other students with higher or lower scores get less attention.

Negligent representation is when test scores are purported to measure something beyond the narrow capabilities of the test. For example, when students, teachers, or whole schools are credited as being successes or failures based on small score differences on narrowly constructed tests.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a joint statement with the head of Georgia’s teacher union, “standardized tests have a role in accountability, but today they dominate everything else and too often don’t even correlate to what students need to know to succeed” (Huffington Post).

The problem, as Weingarten writes, is not that test scores are not indicators of some level of learning; it’s that they are not indicators of everything. Standardized tests in math and English language arts offer little insight on students’ knowledge of science or social studies, let alone their capacity to solve novel and complex problems or to express themselves in persuasive and original ways. Nor do they tell us all we need to know about how well prepared students are for college or career. For this, we need multiple indicators of student learning.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg’s bill (SB 1458), which caps the use of standardized test scores at 60 percent of a school’s API score is a move in the right direction. There are on-going conversations in Sacramento about how to allocate the remainder, including the use of graduation rates. It will also be important to ensure that teachers and others have not only the data on how students perform, but also the resources and time to make use of the data for better instruction.

A broad assessment system that doesn’t favor single-dimension, high-stakes testing is a safeguard against fraud, gaming and misrepresentation. Such subversions of instruction and learning undermine the legitimacy of public education particularly for at-risk youth. Prosecuting fraud sends a powerful message to avoid getting caught at fraud, but it alone does not respond to flawed systems of student assessment or using tests to leverage education improvement. 

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Weekly Themes In The News

Each Friday “Themes in the News” explores one of the current week’s “breaking news” topics—selected by IDEA staff and its partners—for summary and reflection.   Hyperlinks of the news stories, which are cited, allow readers to explore the theme on their own.