A Culture of Cheating

10/04/2011 12:31 am ET | Updated Nov 22, 2011
  • Isabelle Taft 16-year-old member of Grady High School's debate team.

Overemphasis on standardized testing turns schools into pressure cookers, forcing students, teachers, and administrators to use any means at their disposal to attain passing scores on multiple-choice tests. This was made tragically clear by the release in July of an 800-page report on cheating on the Criterion Referenced Competency Test (Georgia's bubble-test of choice) in Atlanta Public Schools.

The report -- the product of a months-long investigation by the Georgia Department of Education -- shows that the de facto APS mission statement was something along the lines of "pass the test." Superintendent Dr. Beverly Hall relentlessly hammered the importance of success on the CRCT to her principals, who in turn demanded their teachers produce impossibly high pass rates. When it became clear to teachers and principals that hard work and careful planning would not be enough to achieve the outcomes Hall required, they turned to other means. They held weekend "test-changing parties." They snuck into their schools after hours to go through tests and change wrong answers to right. They wrote the answers on the board while students were testing. They looked over shoulders and told students to "check over that one again."

Now that the scandal has broken, APS students have had to deal with the stigma of attending a school district that is nationally infamous for cheating. Perhaps the most terrible part is that the students themselves had absolutely nothing to do with the moral failings that occurred. Adults literally robbed children of the chance to prove themselves and selfishly took away the opportunity for struggling students to seek additional instruction. The report alleges that many principals also punished teachers who refused to cheat, sometimes by humiliating them at faculty meetings and other times by seeking their transfer to other schools.

Not every APS student was victimized by the culture of cheating created by the reliance on standardized tests as the only measure of achievement. But I think that all of us suffered for being reduced to statistics. Neither my elementary school, Mary Lin, nor my middle school, Inman, were implicated in the cheating report, yet if an alien from Planet X were to visit either one of these schools in early April in any given year, he would probably think that students, teachers and staff spent all their time worshipping a being called the CRCT with cult-like devotion.

We wrote and acted out skits addressing issues we might encounter while taking the exams, such as broken pencils, testing anxiety, and dwindling time. When we were supposed to be in gym, band, or Spanish class we attended assemblies at which the principal explained exactly how many of us needed to pass and how many to exceed in order for our school to avoid being placed on the "Needs Improvement" list. We all knew what this meant; we had learned the depressing jargon of No Child Left Behind. We went to "ice cream socials" where the entertainment consisted primarily of a call-and-response chant of: "WHAT ARE WE GONNA DO?" "PASS THE CRCT!" I have very little doubt that if the students at Inman Middle School hadn't been able to pass the CRCT, teachers would have felt they had no choice but to do whatever it took to avoid the excessive consequences of failure.

Such is the mentality created by an overreliance on standardized tests to measure student achievement. Still more dangerous is the phenomenon of allocating funds and accolades based on test results. The current system incentivizes horrendously unethical behavior that ultimately deprives the most at-risk students of a decent education. Even where cheating doesn't occur, the emphasis on standardized tests wastes time and causes students to internalize the idea that school is all about learning how to shade the right bubbles.

America's schools should equip students with the skills to become productive members of society and the passion for knowledge to become life-long learners. Standardized testing as it is currently utilized provides neither.