Cheating and Other Deceptions About Students’ Learning

We’re learning that there are many ways to cheat.

The legitimacy of test score increases in District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS),  in particular those at Crosby S. Noyes Education Campus, are the focus of the latest installment in USA Today’s “Testing the System,” a multi-part series exploring the extent and causes of cheating — by teachers, principals and schools — on standardized tests. At the heart of the allegations are multiple erasures — presumably adults correcting test answer sheets — that were detected by the test scanning computers that grade the multiple choice tests. In one classroom at Noyes, USA Today reports, seventh-graders averaged 12.7 wrong-to-right erasures per student. Perhaps the students were lucky, but statisticians say they would have been more likely to pick winning lottery ticket numbers than to make that many wrong-to-right erasures by chance.

If the USA Today allegations are true, then the adults who changed students’ answers did much more than just cheat on a test. They also cheated those students, by allowing them — and their families — to think that they had learned material they clearly hadn’t.

But these deceptions are not new. For decades, less was expected from students attending schools in poor communities. Expectations were even lower for children with disabilities or in special education programs. It was virtually impossible to learn how these children were doing. Because scores were reported only as averages, it was easy to mask the fact that entire groups of students were not learning. Educators and policymakers knew–but the absence of hard data made it easy to turn a blind eye.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which mandated yearly testing and public reporting of schools’ results in grades 3-8 and once in high school, was written in part to respond to these issues. Lawmakers wanted to ensure that test results would be comparable from student to student and create common standards for all students, regardless of their backgrounds. That’s why the law requires that tests align with state content standards and that students be assessed at their official grade level. It’s also why the law requires that schools report results for smaller groups of students–those who don’t speak English, for example, or those with disabilities–separately.

So, before we heed reactionary calls to end standardized testing, it’s important to remember the decades of willful neglect prior to NCLB. Most notably, the implementation of standards-based reform, first in the states in the 1990s and then by the federal government under NCLB in 2002, spurred an unprecedented focus on the deficiencies of schools that serve poor and minority students–students who were long ignored and whose outcomes were mostly hidden from view.

Still, the law is almost a decade old and its flaws are increasingly clear. Few people would defend the quality of most state tests and the low bar that they set to proclaim a student “proficient.” Part of the solution is a better assessment system. The Obama Administration agrees and is investing $350 million in two different consortia of states to develop these assessments. Ideally, improved assessment practices will show us not only what students are learning but also how they are learning and why they may or may not be gaining particular skills or knowledge. We also need to continue explorations of data of all types (not just test scores), building on, for example, important research that’s helping us develop early warning indicators to prevent students from dropping out.

We need voices and ideas from many places to continue to improve our understanding of how well students are learning in our public schools. But there’s no excuse for cheating, whether it’s done by children or adults. And let’s remember that the system before NCLB also cheated children, denying them a chance to get a good education. Ignoring the past and taking us back to those days–however you score it–is definitely a wrong answer.

-Bill Tucker

(Post cross-posted from the Huffington Post.)

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