03/22/2011 12:27 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Three Truths About Testing and Cheating

This week, USA Today continues "Testing the System," a multi-part series exploring the extent and causes of cheating -- by teachers, principals and schools -- on standardized tests. While cheating happens in every field and system, today's polarized debates around education reform can easily turn this type of series into a hammer of blame -- toward teachers, standardized tests and even publicly-funded education -- for whoever partisans of either side want to demonize. Instead, it's important to remember that as is true for many issues, this is one where multiple things can be true -- all at the same time.

1. Cheating is Wrong. Period. -- Cheating is not new and there have always been stakes in education, mostly for students. And, despite the high stakes, such as failing a grade or not getting a diploma, it's always been wrong for a ninth grade student to cheat on his final exam, for a senior to plagiarize his term paper, or for educators to adjust the grades of a star football player. Likewise, despite high-stakes financial pressures, it's always been just as wrong for schools to manipulate attendance records for extra funding. Yet, we don't blame cheating on classroom exams, term papers, academic standards or financial rules. We hold the cheaters responsible.

The biggest problem with blaming standardized testing for cheating is the message it sends, both to educators and the public in general. It absolves responsibility, breeds cynicism and implies that when the heat is on, we can't trust educators -- and by proxy, our public systems -- to do the right thing. I'm confident that the overwhelming majority of educators are trustworthy, understand this, and despite the pressures, don't willingly cheat. If not, we have a much bigger problem on our hands than standardized testing.

2. Incentives and Systems Matter; Willful Neglect Encourages Cheating. -- Yet, we know of systems and situations around the world where a majority of otherwise law-abiding persons cheat. In the most pernicious cases, systems, the structure of incentives and perceptions of what others are doing combine so that rule-following is no longer the norm. Corruption takes hold where it becomes the standard way of doing things and each individual perceives little power to affect change. Likewise, in many developing countries only the "suckers" pay taxes, so tax evasion is standard practice. "Everyone's doing it" does not justify cheating, but ignoring the structural issues is naive.

One of the important things that the USA Today series points out is that in many cases, cheating is passively encouraged through either benign or willful neglect. Nobody, from the governor to the superintendent to the classroom teacher to the parents of the middle-school children, wants to see test scores go down.

Just as financial regulators looked the other way when times were good and helped to propel the crash, none of our educational institutions wants to find trouble. Prior to the financial meltdown, bond-rating agencies became increasingly dependent on proclaiming that new, esoteric bonds were still credit-worthy. Ultimately, the bonds these agencies rated as AAA proved to be no safe harbor. That damaged consumers, nearly wrecked the economy and called into question the integrity of the financial institutions. Education cannot afford a similar meltdown.

3. Following the Rules, But Doing the Wrong Thing -- Perhaps the worst case, and the one that I fear the most in education, is where the system is structured to incentivize doing the wrong thing in the short term -- even if it is totally legal. Again, using the financial meltdown to illustrate the example, these were the thousands of mortgage brokers and agents offering high-interest, almost sure-to-be-defaulted-on loans to ill-informed home buyers. Some of this was outright fraud. But, much of it was perfectly legal. And, even worse, all the incentives and financial rewards in the system went to this so-called creative financial genius. If you weren't doing it, you were a chump, because some other loan officer or bank was and was making huge sums of money. This was the game for a while, but it eventually caught up with many of the worst companies and sent them into bankruptcy.*

Our equivalent in education is the nasty combination of seemingly short-term solutions present in many, but not all, states. We know that high-quality curriculum and instruction lead to better test scores. But, the short-term lures -- predictable tests that assess only a component of the standards and accountability systems that unduly reward a focus on the "cuspers" just below proficiency instead of growth for all students -- can lead to an overemphasis on the wrong things. And, perhaps even worse, they cast doubt on the achievements of the students and educators who are doing the right things.

Improving the practice and process of assessment is part of the answer. And, heading into possible reauthorization of the federal government's main education law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), almost everyone agrees that we need to move from NCLB's proficiency-based model to a fairer one that accounts for how much students grow -- especially where students start way behind. But, we must also develop new measures, such as high school outcomes data, that not only provide valuable feedback to educators, but also provide a gauge to tell if statistics like graduation rates are being gamed. (If graduation standards are being watered down, then it should show up in data about how well students do when they get to college, technical training or post-secondary careers.) And, importantly, since research shows college success is related to not only academic, but non-academic factors, these new measures can help broaden our focus beyond a sole reliance on AYP or high school exit exams to assess high school performance.

We're learning the flaws in our accountability systems. And we should applaud, not be defensive about USA Today's investigation. But let's use it as a way to drive improvements, not cynicism or an abandonment of responsibility and accountability.

*I know, there was incredible collateral damage and many folks got away with millions -- I'm not happy about it either.