Debate Magazine

More Cheating

By Stevemiranda

I recently saw a Seattle Times article that started like this:

Georgia investigators have found evidence of cheating at close to 80 percent of the Atlanta schools where they examined the 2009 administration of state tests.

The result was inflated test scores that led to thousands of children being denied the remedial education they were entitled to, state officials said Tuesday in announcing the results of the investigation. More than 80 educators have so far confessed to misconduct, and investigators said the cheating dated back to at least 2001.

This kind of thing is nothing new, and it will persist as long we perpetuate the myth that high-stakes standardized testing will fix our education system.For more thoughts on this topic, I’m re-running two posts from the archives.

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The D.C. school system and former chancellor Michelle Rhee have come under fire after a USA Today report revealed suspicious data related to significant gains in recent test scores. Here’s an excerpt:

But since 2008, more than half of D.C. schools were flagged by a testing company for having unusually high rates of wrong-to-right erasures. At one school, Noyes Education Campus, the number of erasures in one class was so high that the odds of winning the Powerball grand prize were better than the erasures occurring by chance.

In her response, Rhee noted that a testing company said “there are many reasons for erasures, and the presence of erasures does not mean someone cheated. In fact, it can mean that our students are being more diligent about their work.”

[Officials offered speculation on] why erasures could be so high, including test-taking strategies where students were given as much time as they needed and “were strongly encouraged to review their work,” which could lead to changing answers. Students also might have “mis-gridded” their answer sheets and then corrected them.

Right. And maybe I’ll win the Powerball grand prize tonight.

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The process of teaching and learning is really complicated. Authentic learning takes place over time, and it’s not linear. Any “miracles” related to test scores that occur in short periods of time, you can bet, have nothing to do with authentic learning.

I’ve seen what seem like miracles in education. Privacy concerns prevent me from sharing stories here, but they happen over the course of years: a child with acute challenges growing to be a powerful adult full of confidence and direction. These “miracles” weren’t accompanied by bombastic rhetoric about getting tough, holding people accountable, and raising standards. And upon further examination, they’re not miracles at all. They are reasonable outcomes that we can expect when a child is given love, support, encouragement, guidance and structure in accordance with the most recommended advice from behavioral scientists.

They are what happens when, instead of designing schools to do battle with high-stakes standardized tests, we build schools based on sound principles of human development.

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I recently came across an interesting study on competition:

What happens when you recruit dozens of students to perform a maze-based computer task and then you ratchet up the competitive pressure? Does their performance improve or do they just cheat more?

Christiane Schwieren and Doris Weichselbaumer found out by having 33 men and 32 women at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona spend 30 minutes completing on-screen mazes. Crucially, half the students were paid according to how many mazes they completed whereas the half in the ‘highly competitive’ condition were only paid per maze if they were the top performer in their group of six students.

The students in the highly competitive condition narrowed their eyes, rolled up their sleeves, focused their minds and cheated. That’s right, the students playing under the more competitive prize rules didn’t complete any more mazes than students in the control group, they just cheated more.

Reading this reminded me of the work of Yale University researcher Stanley Milgram. His most famous book is called Obedience, which details experiments that revealed 65 percent of his subjects were willing to give 450-volt electric shocks to innocent people crying out in pain, simply because a scientific authority told them to do so.

Milgram concluded, “The social psychology of this century reveals a major lesson: often it is not so much the kind of person a man is as the kind of situation in which he finds himself that determines how he will act.”

Were the people who gave the electric shocks sadistic people? Were the people who cheated in the maze study above immoral folks? I don’t think so.

Similarly, kids who fall asleep in class, who don’t do their homework, and who take the bathroom pass and spend the class period roaming the halls—these aren’t bad kids. And don’t think for a minute that they don’t want to learn.  They are, like Milgram suggests, products of their environment.

When you tell kids to study in order to get a good grade, you’re cultivating an environment in which external rewards are more important than learning.

When you tell kids to study so they can get into a good college, you’re cultivating an environment in which the future is more important than the present.

When you tell kids they need to ask permission to use the bathroom, you’re cultivating an environment that encourages them to look always to authority figures for what to do.

Transforming our schools has almost nothing to do with curriculum, and almost everything to do with the environments we create for kids.

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