In conversations on campus about academic integrity, people tend to focus on one of two elements in the effort to stop cheating. One camp tends to see the solution in more effective policing of tests and heavier punishment of those caught cheating. Another wants to focus on the "cause" of cheating by reducing the amount of pressure on students to get higher grades and better test scores.
Cheating in schools doesn't have one cause, of course, so it is unrealistic to expect there will be one "silver-bullet" solution. Some elements of both approaches are required, if any real change is going to be made. What's interesting about the conversation, however, is that a version of it is being played out on a national level as administrators try to figure out how to stop educators from cheating on the tests mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act, but little attention is being paid to the connection between the increase of educators cheating and the increase of students cheating!
Cases of teachers and principals changing their students' answers after the test, or filling in the correct answers that students left blank, have made headlines in recent months. Those headlines caught the attention of the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress. The GAO decided to study the issue, because if the validity of those tests cannot be relied upon, it said, "there is a higher risk that decisions based on test results may be faulty, and lead to damaging results, including failing to identify and provide resources for underperforming schools and students most in need of academic support."
Cheating is Stealing
The GAO, reported that potential cheating by school officials had been found in 40 states in the last two school years. More than three-quarters of those states were able to confirm at least one incident of cheating and had to scrap tests turned in by the offenders.
Although the GAO focused primarily on the methods used by states to protect the integrity of the tests, it also pointed out that the results of these tests are used in decisions to make curricula changes in underperforming schools, to remove principals, and even to restructure schools completely. In fact, the agency found that 24 states provide awards or special recognition to school officials based on student test scores, 24 states link assessment scores to educator evaluations, and nine states consider those scores when deciding about promotions.
In other words, there is a lot of pressure on school officials to make sure their schools do well on those assessments. Of course, schools that don't do well may qualify for School Improvement Grants, which is why cheating to make the results look better than they are is tantamount to robbing the students of resources they might need.
Students who cheat in school create an analogous situation, because the benefits that come to them as a result of their cheating come at the cost of the students who came in second because they did NOT cheat. Those cheating students are, essentially, stealing opportunities from the students who do not.
The Government's Response
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has rejected calls for ending the use of student assessment as a measure of the educators' accountability. Instead, the Department of Education held a "Testing Integrity Symposium," where educators and industry representatives explored better policing of the tests.
At the Symposium, attendees first tackled the task of defining cheating, filling three categories with examples of cheating behavior ranging from serious to minor. The conversation turned next to "creating a culture in which tests are focused on the students and integrity is ingrained in the school district's culture." Panelists suggested creating an honor code for educators and "implementing a culture where learning is the goal, as opposed to performance." At the end of the day, however, the panel's report focuses mainly on creating better testing security - policing - to prevent cheating before it occurs and punishing those who violate the rules.
The conversation on campuses frequently follows a similar pattern. It is easier to address issues of security than it is to do something to create a culture where integrity matters, even after acknowledging that such culture-building is at the core of solving the problem. Meanwhile, the education system continues to be plagued by cheating at every level. The inherent value of integrity is eroding, and we are sending graduates into the world secure in the knowledge that success achieved by cheating is easy and rewarding.
The frightening thought is what will happen as students, leaving the education system with that mindset, enter the working world. Treating cheating as Crime and Punishment will be of no help as we encounter doctors, architects, mechanics, and airline pilots who cheated their way into their professions.