National surveys show that most students report cheating at some point during their school careers. The Internet makes one form of cheating easier since essays can be purchased and, if necessary, adapted for common high school assignments and college applications. High school students in prestigious Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs often indicate that pressure from parents and teachers led them to engage in academically dishonest activities.
Educators make similar claims. They say the threat of federal and state legislation to close schools or replace staff encourages them to cheat. Cheating has become so widespread that it is now the topic of scholarly symposia, targeted intervention programs, and educational policy.
Some educators may deliberately overlook ill-disguised student cheating since their invalid results may make it appear that they themselves are doing their jobs well. But evidence suggests that such fraud harms students. Aside from the ethical and test validity issues, students may develop elevated views of their abilities gained from cheating and other shortcuts.
Students’ belief in ability rather than hard work undermines their success in school and in adult life. No matter how able, they will inevitably fail some objective tests and life’s trials, and their previously justified confidence will collapse.
Students Who Cheat
Though the research on student cheating is less than rigorous, a critical summary of it suggests that cheating grows with age during the school years and dissipates during the college years. Students from families of higher socioeconomic status are more likely than others to cheat, perhaps because they face more pressure to prepare for college and perhaps because children from poor families may envision entering the workforce soon after or before high school graduation. Similarly, students with strong academic records are also more inclined to cheat.
Students who find schoolwork boring or too challenging are more likely to try cheating. The roots of this problem lie with the traditional school experience as a whole. For example, it is nearly impossible, especially in high school, to teach students that have radically different degrees of preparation.
Cheating by Administrators
Cheating among educators rose since the establishment of federal No Child Left Behind and related state legislation and the required introduction of high-stakes tests in most public schools.
An analysis of a large collection of news articles showed extensive cheating and what might be called “near cheating,” leading to spuriously high test scores.
The following were among the practices reported in the review:
• Expelling students whose normal coursework suggests they would not score well on grade-level tests.
• Forcing students who might score poorly to leave the school and join alternative schools for students with special needs.
• Narrowing the curriculum covered in the school to include only information that is likely to be on the test.
• Encouraging students likely to score poorly to be absent on testing days and assigning them to special education groups that are not tested.
Cheating by Teachers
Teachers have been caught giving students more time than allowed for testing, altering students’ answer sheets, and removing weak answer sheets from the set to be scored. The existence of more subtle forms of cheating led one scholar who observed how teachers prepare students for tests to propose a catalog of practices, including the following legitimate practices:
• Offering the standard curriculum regardless of its relevance to the test.
• Teaching general test-taking strategies and skills.
• Trying to inoculate students against any stress associated with tests.
Illegitimate practices include the following:
• Teaching the actual test content and items, and showing students how to answer questions.
• Using practice tests that contain items that are parallel in form to those on the test.
• Giving students answers during the test session.
Deterring Educators’ Fraud
Chastising students, teachers, or administrators about how the illegitimate practices invalidate test scores and ultimately harm them may be futile, partly because it may be in their perceived self-interest to cheat. Educating them about their “true” self-interest may also be futile so long as cheating is difficult to detect or the consequences of being caught are not perceived as being very large. What can be done?
Experiments show that students cheat less when the risks and penalties of being caught are high. This argues for increased diligence in detecting and punishing cheaters. It is reasonable to assume that educators respond to incentives the same way students do, so firing educators caught cheating and taking away their licenses would signal that cheating is being dealt with seriously.
Some studies and expert opinions suggest that the culture of cheating may be changing for the better. Students, teachers, and education leaders may jointly develop an honor code and take shared responsibility for detecting cheating. These codes may call attention to the unfairness of cheating, and they may reward students and educators ceremonially for doing honorable and superior work.
Yet, policing and voluntary compliance may not deter widespread student and educator cheating on tests in K–12 schools. For this reason, independent auditing organizations should develop blueprints and tests aligned with standards, administer the tests, and report the results to parents, citizens, legislators, school boards, and educators.
Herbert J. Walberg ([email protected]) is chairman of the board of The Heartland Institute. This article is adapted with permission from his new book, Tests, Testing, and Genuine School Reform (Stanford, CA: Education Next Books/Hoover Institution Press, 2011). Copyright © 2011 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University.