05/15/2013 05:36 pm ET Updated Jul 15, 2013

Cheating -- It's Not Just for Kids

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There are more reminders, this week, that academic dishonesty is not the exclusive domain of students (as if we needed reminding). In South Korea, the SAT had to be cancelled -- nationwide -- after prosecutors discovered that companies offering tutoring services had unauthorized copies of tests and other materials. Meanwhile, in California, the Commission on Professional Competence reinstated a tenured teacher who was fired for improperly assisting his elementary school students on state tests.

What do these two stories have in common? In both, the adults responsible for teaching children decided instead just to help them pass the test. In both, the adults made choices that would benefit themselves at the expense of the education of the children who relied on them. In both, the focus on a single, high-stakes test caused adults to sacrifice their integrity, and possibly a lot more.

How did we get to the point where these tests are so important? The SAT is seen as the filter that sifts the pool of high school graduates so the top schools know who deserves a shot at a successful life and career. The state tests seek to measure whether the money allocated to the public school system is being well spent.

Measuring for the Sake of Measuring

What both tests do is confirm the notion that we, as humans, tend to place value on the things we are capable of measuring, not because they are the things we actually value, but precisely because they are the things we can measure.

As the state tests were approaching one year, I asked my students to think about how they would decide whether a high school was doing a good job. At first, they all said they would look at the test scores. When I asked them whether they thought their test scores represented how much they had learned in high school, they all said no.

We kicked around some crazy ideas: What if we checked to see how much money students had accumulated by their tenth reunion? Maybe we should just check to see how many students had managed to stay out of jail for the decade. Or would it make more sense to poll the 10-year graduates to find out whether they were simply happy?

While these all had their appeal, we decided, none was a practical alternative to standardized tests. How much more simple it is to run a bubble-sheet through a scanner than to evaluate how much knowledge a child has assimilated in a form that will be useful later in life.

The True Value of "The Test"

"The test" has, indeed, become the centerpiece of the education system. Students and teachers alike keep track of points, like athletes and fans, to determine who wins and who loses. The integrity of the testing environment has become a primary focus: Is the test secure? Are the students proctored? Is everyone getting the same instructions and support?

The economic measures of the value of the standardized tests is revealed by what the students and adults are willing to do to improve their scores. The going-rate for a copy of the upcoming SAT test booklet in Korea is said to be almost $5,000. After the SAT was canceled there, some Korean students planned to fly to Japan or Hong Kong to take the test.

Even in the U.S., students have been willing to pay as much as $3,600 for a stand-in to take the test. It's a small price to pay for a clearer path to the best college, right?

Some might argue that the SAT doesn't play that big a role in college selection these days. If so, then why the cat-and-mouse game? Kids cheat. Authorities ratchet up the security. Kids cheat harder. Could it be that there's a very big and profitable industry to protect here?

Pressure: The Built-In Excuse

In Los Angeles, the school district says that the fifth-grade teacher who helped his students on their standardized tests should be fired to protect its zero-tolerance policy on cheating. California's Commission on Professional Competence, on the other hand, ruled that, although the teacher was dishonest enough for the district to fire him, the state has the power to reinstate him -- and it did. Why? Part of the panel's reasoning blamed the school culture, because the teacher succumbed to pressure from above to improve his students' scores.

Of course, that begs the question of why the school administration thinks it is so important to raise the scores. Just as with the SATs, where a dollar amount can be placed on the value of a higher score, a dollar value can also be calculated for the state standardized test scores (as long as funding and certification for the school is based, even in part, on those numbers).

So far, the Los Angeles Unified School District has spent $280,000 in its effort to fire the cheating teacher, and it will continue to spend money as it appeals the state panel's decision. And the cost of the cat-and-mouse game continues to rise.

Integrity: Collateral Damage

Meanwhile, the struggle over the integrity of the system belies the fact that the system itself is broken. People are cheating to do well on tests that only measure what can be measured. Authorities are building security systems to make it harder to cheat on those tests. The additional security measures reinforce the idea that scoring well on the tests is what really counts. But, in the end, enforcement agencies don't have the heart/backbone to punish cheaters who buckle under the pressure to do well on the test.

All this sends a mixed message... no, a garbled message... to the entire education community. We test our kids to measure their education. We tell everyone (students, teachers, administrators) that their futures depend on the students' performance on those tests, making the value of doing well irrationally high. When someone cheats, we may make noises about punishment, but we frequently fail to follow through, saying the pressure to cheat may have been irresistible. Then, we increase that pressure by threatening to cut funding and to close schools whose test scores indicate that students aren't learning, even though we don't really know whether the test scores measure what we truly hope the students have learned.

In the end, we have built irrational pressure into the system, then allowed cheaters to use that pressure as an excuse for having cheated. As a result, what we are teaching is that integrity is an acceptable casualty in the push for a better education system, and that's the wrong lesson.