'The pressure on teachers to get good test scores makes it inevitable they will cheat'

5th July 2016 at 10:57
Despite the Atlanta marking scandal, teachers will consider cheating as a means of survival, says former school principal

The cheating scandal that engulfed schools in Atlanta, Georgia, was finally settled last year with criminal convictions for many involved and some teachers even being sent to prison. While the episode – dating back to 2001 – isn’t the only example of cheating as a result of Federally mandated testing, it is certainly the biggest. At least, it is the biggest to be uncovered so far.

What we don’t know is how much cheating has gone on since the Federal government started mandating high-stakes tests during the Clinton administration. The federal mandates, which continue to morph, have given schools and students an elaborate game to play, and when any system resembles a game, it’s safe to say that some will game it. 

Pressure to cheat

The people in Atlanta got caught because they had erasing parties where they changed answers. What they apparently didn’t know was that modern scanners can pick up erasure marks and report the percentage that go from incorrect to correct.

If other schools have followed a similar path, they have been much more selective about how they erase. By focusing on the kids who are on the border of passing or failing, only changing a few answers or the easiest questions the student got wrong, schools are much less likely to arouse suspicions.

Given the pressure on schools to deliver good test results, I don’t doubt these are the kinds of calculations that teachers are making. Teachers – whether they go through with it or not – are now operating in a system where it is inevitable that a many will consider cheating as a means of survival.

And it is not just erasing incorrect answers. There a whole host of others ways to cheat the system that teachers will increasingly get drawn to.

Gaming the system

Although some states, such as New York, are removing time constraints for tests many others still have them.

In most schools these tests take place behind closed doors with “Do Not Disturbed” signs. Tell me there are not teachers who let the timeframe slide as no one will know.

(In my view all tests should be timeless. In the real world it isn’t unusual for people stay late to get a job done rather than telling the boss that it didn’t get done on time.)

Teachers can also place marginal students next to top students and not aggressively invigilate, hoping that the tendency for some students to cheat will take over.

A focus of the government on these tests is improvement from one year to the next. This may sound like a good idea, but for teachers who have many high-performing students, it’s difficult to improve if scores are already near the top. If you have kids who did poorly last year, there is lots of room for improvement.

In short, it’s easier to improve if you suck, which provides an incentive for teachers to artificially depress scores one year so they look good the next.

Once the tests are given, there are sections that have to be graded by teachers. While teachers can’t grade their own students’ tests, than can give the benefit of the doubt on the tests they do grade, and many do.

What should teachers do?

If I were still principal, I would tell the teachers to create interesting, engaging lessons that get the students excited about learning, and don't even think about the tests until just before they are given.

Lessons should help students internalize important knowledge and use it along with new knowledge to solve problems and be creative. At least three times a day make sure students get out of their seats and move around. Take them for a walk, do some stairs, and throw in some other exercises.

One week prior to the tests, tell the students that it's time to get ready for the "testing game." Teach them how to game multiple choice questions along with any other testing tricks you have learned. Tell them it doesn't matter how well they do and to do their best. No matter what happens, tell them you still love them.

Remember, the first and most important thing a teacher does is develop a strong relationship with each individual student.

As for the above information about how cheating takes place, I wouldn’t do anything other than giving students a little extra time to finish. There are no tests in the real world, only work to be done, and I’m sure most bosses don’t mind if you call a friend, poll the audience, or ask an expert.

So, teachers, operate within the rules. But also do all you can to point out the flaws in a system that must be changed for the good of children and society.

Douglas Green is a former school principal, administrator and university lecturer, who runs the www.drdrouggreen.com website and can be found tweeting at @drdouggreen

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