Do Standardized Tests Make Teachers Cheat?

In 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law. The bill aimed to improve standards and performance in public schools across the nation. That goal is currently pursued through rigorous standardized testing, the results of which trigger rewards and penalties for teachers and schools. Yet a recent spate of stories from across the nation suggests that the testing model may cause rampant cheating.

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When Teachers Cheat

As standardized tests have grown in significance, cases of cheating by teachers have followed. Scandals have emerged in the school systems of New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. The state of California is currently embroiled in a statewide controversy.

Nowhere, though, has the cheating been found to be as pervasive as Atlanta. In what has been called the biggest cheating scandal in U.S. history, 178 teachers and principals from Atlanta Public Schools were named in a report released by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation in July. Nearly 80% of schools that were investigated had evidence of cheating.

The cheating in Atlanta took a variety of forms. Some teachers corrected answers on students' completed test forms. Others placed low-scoring students next to high-scoring students, who let them copy their answers. In many cases, the principals encouraged the cheating, either casually or with threats. The investigators reported one teacher equated the district to the mob.

Why They Cheat

The motivations behind the cheating are clear. The stakes have been raised so high that many teachers and administrators are under constant, intense pressure to succeed. There are some teachers who admit to cheating in order to help their students. More often, though, the cheating is less about individual students and more about the teachers, schools and districts.

Teachers are being given tenure or fired based upon standardized test scores. Often, it's the fear of losing their jobs that pushes teachers to cheat, even though discovery of the cheating would likely cost them their jobs. In some cases, teachers have admitted to cheating because they believe the standardized testing system is inherently unethical; they see cheating as a form of fighting fire with fire.

Often, it's the administrators who are pressuring their teachers to cheat. As with the teachers, administrators are keenly aware of the high stakes. Schools that perform well on tests earn prestige and raise local property values, which leads to more students and better funding. Underperforming schools face the opposite result, including the threat of being completely shut down.

How They Cheat

With cheating as rampant as it appears to be, it begs the question of how so many schools can get away with it for so long. In Atlanta, some schools were found to have been cheating for ten years before being discovered. As it turns out, the same budget cuts that schools have been fearing have also hit investigators. In California, the state's forensic team that focuses on analyzing standardized tests faced $105,000 in budget cuts in 2009. That led them to stop looking for corrected test forms and eliminate audits of testing procedures.

When the investigators lose their funding, it's left to the schools to self-report and voluntarily provide information on their testing. Districts in California self-reported 112 possible cheating instances over the past two years. Yet it seems likely that much cheating goes unreported. As long as the emphasis on the tests is so significant, teachers will continue to feel as though they are in a no-win situation and cheating seems destined to continue.

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