September 28th, 2011

DISCUSS: How Do We Best Prevent Cheating In Our Schools?

The Atlanta cheating scandal was a black mark on education — and then, similar scandals emerged in other major cities. How do we prevent this in the future? We convened several experts to discuss. You may also be interested in our report for PBS NewsHour on the topic, embedded above.

Andy Porter, UPenn

Set targets and be accountable

Andy Porter is the dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania.

In K-12 education, we’ve been moving to hold educators accountable for their students’ performance on state-administered standardized tests. The accountability movement’s goal is better instruction for all students, but accountability tempts some people to cheat.

People are tempted when they see (a) a benefit to cheating and (b) an opportunity to cheat.

Some would solve the cheating problem by eliminating accountability — that is, by eliminating the incentive to cheat. To me, that would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Education needs accountability to help us improve schools and, if we have to, weed out the incompetent.

I have a simple formula for doing K-12 accountability right. First, we must set a good target by testing exactly what we want our students to know and be able to do. Second, we must hold students as well as educators accountable on the same tests; we want both to have incentives to do their best. Third, accountability must be fair. Students must be given adequate opportunity to learn what is tested, and teachers must get the resources to be effective. Fairness also requires that we anticipate cheating, and that we put in place measures to prevent it and to detect it when it occurs. Much is known about how to do both.

Brian Backstrom, Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability

A basic four-step process

Brian Backstrom is Vice President of the Albany-based Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability, a state education policy research organization that focuses on the areas of educational innovation, accountability, and choice.

Thanks to the federal Race to the Top grant program, more states than ever are considering student outcomes on state assessments when evaluating individual teachers and principals. Given the increasingly heavy weight these assessment results are playing, states should be reexamining the integrity of the administration and scoring of their assessment systems.

As an example, New York took the long overdue step of banning the practice of teachers re-scoring exams to find an extra point or two to help borderline students pass. While this may seem like a no-brainer, it took until this year for the ban to become policy.

Additional common-sense ideas that states should consider (if they aren’t already policy) include:

  • Prohibiting teachers from scoring their own students’ exams, a practice currently allowed in New York.
  • Computerize the process for scoring extended response questions, sending them electronically to a centralized location that is staffed by trained, more objective and consistent scorers.
  • Prohibit teachers from proctoring exams for their own students and subject areas.
  • Strengthen whistle-blower protections for reporting cheating and criminal punishments for test-scoring cheaters.

Systems of accountability and evaluation are only as strong as their weakest links. Like New York, no doubt many states’ assessment administration and scoring processes should be overhauled from top to bottom to eliminate the opportunities for cheating.

Joan Arbisi Little, Center for School Change

Is it as simple as praise?

Joan Arbisi Little is the Associate Director of the Center for School Change at Macalester College in Minnesota.

When I think about kids and cheating I think about motivation: what is motivating them to cheat?

I asked my teen-aged daughters what they thought about cheating and here are a few of their comments:

“Desperation to please people — or a feeling that there is no way out. They would rather do it quickly, and get it done. People tell kids they aren’t good enough all the time. It’s not a good morality to cheat, but I don’t see why people don’t just say that it is wrong and move on. I don’t think they should be severely punished. Smart kids do it all the time.”

“It’s not a question of how smart you are, it’s a question of how far are you willing to go to get that praise from adults.”

“It’s contradictory because you just wanted to get praise, and it feels weird when they severely punish for it. They should punish for violence and bullying because it hurts someone. Cheating is just wrong.”

Praise. It never occurred to me that a student would be looking for praise.

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Clearly cheating should not be condoned in any way shape or form. When I had a school, I would rather look bad through artificial eyes than insult the kids and parents by cheating.

How is this resolved? The systemic problem is that education is currently about winning rather than about learning. When I recently studied Rosetta Stone Spanish, I passed three levels with 90% or above but couldn’t speak a lick of Spanish. This was because I was trying to win, not trying to learn. When I went back and made learning the issue, Ahora mi espanol es un poco mejor. Es bien por un anciano.

There is a major difference between winning and learning. The basis of cheating is winning because when it is about learning there is no need to win.

Currently the “test” stands out there alone. It has no value to the student. When the focus is on learning, assessment becomes valuable, kids focus better and the information from the assessment is used for their advantage. With these thoughts, learning becomes the issue, not cheating.

Education can no longer be a game designed to fit all kids into a small standardized box full of word games and math riddles. It must be changed to take every child from where they are in order for all to achieve.


Cap Lee has it right. State and federal policy makers seems more interested in punishment than learning.

Our state requires non-English speaking students to take the state exam in English only. Students can’t demonstrate their knowledge in math when they can’t read the instructions or story problems. So the student and teacher are rated failures even if the student has mastered advanced math.

Test scorers (who need not be college grads or have any mastery of English composition) of essay exams check for spelling, punctuation, and whether the student uses any big words. That qualifies students for the equivalent of a C grade. Is this any way to test and score higher order thinking skills?

When will the test makers and policymakers be held accountable for such lunacy? Let testing be diagnostic to learn and address student needs rather
than a blunt instrument in the hands of unqualified scorers by which to punish students and teaching staff.

The news is full of stories about incidents of cheating on various accountability tests. The Secretary of Education has urged all state commissioners to focus on testing integrity. In response, states are asking task forces to develop new security protocols, are hiring consultants to evaluate erasure patterns on test booklets, and are contemplating how they can change the pressures for cheating.

A more complete integration of testing, accountability, and teaching would be superior to dealing with the integrity of testing in isolation. Let’s put the tests out in the sun instead of trying to lock them up in more and more secure rooms.

The use of student outcome measures for accountability is now firmly entrenched and is not about to go away. But a variety of complaints about the current testing system exist. First, the tests tend to narrow the teaching to just what is expected on the tests – with excessive teaching to the test and drilling on practice tests. Second, the tests are too easy for students in some schools and too hard for others, either wasting the time of some or frustrating others. Third, using tests for accountability purposes encourages cheating and other ways to evade scrutiny.

To address these different issues, we need to think differently about aims and means. Here is a brief proposal to deal with all of the problems. It starts with developing a large item bank of test questions of varying difficulty. Imagine 1,500 questions for fourth grade math that cover the entire scope of appropriate material from basic to advanced topics. Next, make all of the test items – not just sample items – publicly available and encourage teachers to teach to the test, because the items cover the full range of the desired curriculum. Making the items public will also ensure the quality of the test items. One could invite feedback ratings or open sourcing to provide a path to improving the questions over time. Then, move to computerized adaptive testing, where answers to an initial set of questions move the student to easier or more difficult items based on responses. This testing permits accurate assessments at varying levels while lessening test burden from excessive questions that provide little information on individual student performance. Such assessments would not be limited to minimally proficient levels that are the focus of today’s tests, and thus they could provide useful information to districts that find current testing too easy. Students would be given a random selection of questions, and the answers would go directly into the computer – bypassing the erasure checks, the comparison of responses with other students, and the like.

This proposal actually follows the current testing by the FAA of knowledge needed to obtain a private pilot license. While there are commercial books on these tests, replete with questions and answers, the efficient way to prepare for the tests is simply to learn the underlying concepts. It is not to attempt to memorize the answers, because it is easy to confuse such an attempt.

What are the potential problems? Some say developing test items would make this too costly, but remember that it is only necessary to have one item bank, not the continually changed banks of today. Some worry about ensuring that sufficient computers are available in all schools, but with all of the digital devices currently in use, surely there are a range of possibilities to deliver the tests effectively and efficiently. There is the problem that the testing companies would not particularly like the proposal. They find they are happy with mindlessly developing slightly different variants of existing tests for different states, years, and administrations. But, maybe there are more productive ways for them to enter into the process.

The proposed system would yield quick and reliable feedback on student achievement, would deal with the various cheating and gaming issues, and would more effectively define what students should know than the currently available standards.

Joan Arbisi Little is correct in raising the issue of motivation, but I wish the problem was as simple as students seeking praise from adults. The problem is the culture adults have created in schools over the past decade between the adults. The stakes are just too high for the scores on standardized tests and we’re about to make them higher when we tie teacher evaluation to a single standardized test score. Washington DC has yet to really investigate its testing scandal in 103 schools, but it’s a no brainer that if principals and teachers live in fear of losing their jobs when test scores drop, and can get cash bonuses of $5,000 to $25,000 for improbable student test score gains, the table is set for massive cheating. It has happened in almost every district that has created these stakes, but only a few have investigated the extent of the scandal. The problem is the culture we have created, not, with all due respect to Dr. Hanushek, a technical fix on the kinds of tests we use. Tests are a useful proxy for learning. They do not measure learning itself. The stakes we have attached to these tests is just too high. The US Department of Education and hard-charging “reformer” Chancellors and Superintendents must take responsibility and do some soul-searching. Otherwise there will be no solution. It will only get worse.

If we assume that no one size fits all, then we need to look at what it is we hope or expect our schools to do. In my opinion, our schools, all of them be they traditional public or public charter or magnets or YIC or RTC or private or online or homeschool, are about preparing kids for the next level and, simultaneously, life and what it potentially can be for them. So two things are always happening. One can be controlled for by virtue of core standards and assessments, quality teaching, and other supports year by year. The other, not so much. It is largely a construct waiting to be constructed.

As we are dealing with children and they are faced with all sorts of challenges and issues many of us maybe were not faced with, these things cannot be ignored, but they certainly should not be used to make excuses. Two things I know in my experience with kids of all ages, they want to be an individual and they need to be known. It really is not that different for how we adults feel. So why not create IEPs for ALL kids? With this I am suggesting we all have special needs, but I’m not suggesting it to be glib. With the various achievement gaps to overcome, creating these plans for every student would help well-trained and supported teachers provide what the kids need, short of letting them have the same teacher year after year. Creating these plans allows us to get to know the kids like they know themselves and like their parents or guardians hopefully know them. As these plans are reviewed and refined each year, the testing Dr. Hanushek suggests then becomes even more powerful and not quite so “gotcha” as it becomes useful to refine programs, address gaps and provide the support needed.

How do we fund such an effort in terms of time and money and human resources? We get rid of the myriad levels of specialists at district offices and expect superintendents and assistant or associate superintendents to do something with that expertise that got them their jobs. Every dollar spent away from direct impact on kids is wasted funding. We hire teachers for so-called electives which allows the main teachers to collaborate on the files. Of course for older students, the issue is that they generally do not have a primary teacher of record, so one should be identified. There are plenty of ways to be wiser with the dollars allocated even in these times where budgets have been slashed to pieces.

Charter school personnel are often expected to wear multiple hats. It is a choice we make when we agree to work at one. Many do extra duties because it is part of the culture, not so much because an extra buck is included. If we are going to turn things around and at long last join the 21st century, this may be a place to start for all schools. Leaner management and support, while still providing the necessities, so that more is invested in each student as a person. If teachers are trained this way, regardless of their path into the classroom, within a relatively quick generation, it simply becomes the norm.

Will this cost a bunch? I don’t know. That is up to the numbers guys. Will it make a difference? I believe it could be transformational. Schools doing something along these lines are seeing the result because their assessments are part of the learning and success culture of the school. And this is not about a charter-specific idea. There are districts doing this throughout the nation, we just are not hearing enough about them. And, given the topic, will this stop cheating? I sense it could remove, along with policy changes that are forthcoming, any motivation to engage in cheating our kids. I mean, that is what this is about for me. Kids who could afford it the least being robbed of a quality they should be able to expect from the adults in their lives.

It’s all a matter of integrity and morality…both of which are missing in too many American homes. Thus, the real focus should be on inspiring students toward those two ideals. It takes a lot of slow to grow into decent citizens and without modeling from parents and other leaders in our country, growing children will continue to default to the easy way out when all they see in their lives is people finding ways to cut corners and ignore the joys of hard work, independence and freedom of self improvement at the expense of all of us. We teachers are the gateways to the possibilities for stduents. They are in charge of the choices they make to get there. If they cheat, they cheat themselves. Unforutnately, the rest of us clean up the fallout from those decisions, but we aren’t miracle workers. Let people be who they want to be. Cheating is a symtom, not a life sentence.

I often don’t agree with Hanushek, but I like this idea. If we are going to test, might as well make it public. You don’t need the computer to make it work, but it helps to address the cheating problem easily, though there are always other ways.

We can curb cheating in our schools when 1) Parents become well-informed, knowledgeable and involved in their children’s education and/or schools; 2) when accountability and regulatory oversight occcur and 3) problems are immediately addressed and corrected.
Mrs. Dorothy Barron, Founder of Parents Taking Charge in Education
16 year (7-9 full-time)Parent School Volunteer

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