Cheating to Improve School Results is Rampant

Monday July 16, 2007

By Trevor Cobbold

Publishing school results does not necessarily lead to real improvements in school performance, whatever the Howard Government and the Labor Opposition may argue. The desire to achieve a high ranking and enhance a school’s reputation often leads to cheating and other ways of manipulating school results.

The last few months has seen several examples of rampant cheating on standardised tests in California and Texas by schools and teachers in response to accountability measures to improve school performance. These incidents come on top of many other cheating incidents in many states of the US in recent years.

The revelations show that ranking schools by test results and monetary rewards for schools that most improve their test results are an incentive for schools to cheat. It is an easy way to get a quick improvement in school results.

In early July, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that current and former teachers at the University Preparatory Charter High School in Oaklands claimed that a culture of cheating exists at the school. In a 27-page report, the teachers stated that students’ grades are frequently falsified and that low-scoring students are barred from taking state-required exams as a way of avoiding lowering the school’s test scores.

Students were also given easier tests than required by state regulations as a way of boosting results. Other schools in the region have reported that the grades of students transferring to the school rose dramatically and that the results of those who returned to their previous school had plummeted.

In the past four years, the charter school’s state-wide test scores have been invalidated three times. In 2004, they were nullified because too few students took the required tests. In 2006 and 2007, the state Department of Education discovered cheating. In 2006, the Department found hundreds of ninth-grade English and maths test answers had been changed.

In early June, the Dallas Morning News reported an in-depth analysis that found that tens of thousands of students cheat on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) every year. The analysis found cases where 30, 50 or even 90 percent of students had suspicious answer patterns that researchers said indicate collusion, either between students or with school staff.

The News analysis of TAKS data from 2005 and 2006, which was done with help from Professor George Wesolowsky, from McMaster University in Canada, found that by far the most extreme cases of cheating were in the state’s lightly regulated and privately run charter schools. The study found that 37 of the 50 worst cases of cheating occurred in charter schools. Yet, charter schools make up only 2 percent of the state’s schools.

The extent of cheating in one charter school was on a scale that astounded researchers of educational fraud. A Canadian cheating expert, Professor David Harpp from McGill University, who examined the school’s scores said that cheating in the school was “total corruption”.

The News study found that cheating in charter schools was almost four times the rate of traditional public schools. Cheating was also more common at under-achieving schools, where the pressure to boost scores is the highest.

Some of the Texas schools involved in cheating had been given awards and cash bonuses for improving performance.

These cheating incidents come on top of many other instances over many years across many US states following the introduction of reporting school results on standardized tests. For example:
teachers at a Chicago elementary school erased wrong answers on students’ test booklets and filled in the correct answers, and filled in answers to questions that students had not attempted;

  • 21 teachers and principals in New York state were recently discovered to have reviewed state tests in advance with students, tailored instruction to match specific questions for an upcoming test, improperly scored state tests, distributed answers for test questions, and directed students to change their responses to items during a test administration;
  • 400 Texas schools showed improbable test score gains on the TAKS between 2003 and 2004;
  • a report from the state of Nevada indicated that reported incidents of student and teacher cheating on that state’s test had increased by over 50 percent from the 2002-2003 to the 2003-04 school year; and
  • an investigation of student responses on the Michigan Educational Assessment Program tests suggested that students’ written answers to questions on social science, science, and writing tests at 71 Michigan elementary and secondary schools were so similar that they may have been attributable to inappropriate actions on the part of educators.
  • a 2002 study of results for Chicago Public Schools on the reading and mathematics sections of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills for all students in 3rd through 7th grades from 1993-2000 found over 1,000 separate instances of classroom cheating, representing 4-5 per cent of all classrooms.

Standardised tests many US states have high stakes attached to them. School results are published and therefore determine a school’s reputation and ability to attract students. School ratings are a mark of public pride or shame. Some teachers’ salaries are now tied to their students’ performance on test day. Decisions like whether a teen graduates or a third-grader gets promoted now hinge on test scores.

Researchers concur that the higher the stakes, the more likely are schools and teachers to cheat. Education departments across the US are spending millions of dollars in trying to monitor and deter cheating that has become epidemic in some places.

Even with the wide availability of security measures, some researchers are pessimistic that cheating can ever be completely eliminated as long as someone has something to gain from a high score. They say that schools and teachers, rightly or wrongly, feel that they are being judged on the basis of these instruments and some of them cave in and do things they shouldn’t.

The founder of one of the most widely used standardised tests in the United States says that there is only one way to effectively stop widespread cheating and that is to reduce the high stakes attached to tests.

It is a recommendation that the Howard Government and the Labor Opposition would do well to heed. It means not publishing school results.

16 July 2007

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Labor Backs School League Tables

Tuesday July 10, 2007

Whatever Government is in power next year, we can expect to be treated to an annual public hunt for the worst schools in Australia.

The Federal ALP has joined forces with the Howard Government’s plan for a ‘crime and punishment’ approach to school improvement. The Shadow Minister for Education, Stephen Smith, says that a Federal Labor Government will ensure that state governments publish school literacy and numeracy results.

Reporting of school results inevitably leads to the publication of school league tables as it has in England and the US. Poor performing schools will be subject to a public ‘tar and feathering’ to make an example of them in the hope it will force them to do better.

This is a short step from taking away funding or closing schools if they don’t improve as now happens in England and many states in the US. Once it was found that reporting school results was not sufficient to improve results, governments resorted to punishing schools and students for not improving performance.

Public shaming, humiliation and punishment for poor performance have never worked as a teaching strategy in schools. They offer even less as public policy.

Overseas research shows that reporting school results has minimal impact on student achievement. The main effect is that schools adopt various strategies to artificially boost their performance.

The easiest way to do this is to replace low achieving students with those who generate better test results. Schools do this by ‘creaming off’ high achieving students from other schools and getting rid of their low achieving students. They also use covert selection methods to avoid enrolling low achieving and intellectually impaired students.

Outright cheating is another way. In the last year alone, cheating incidents have occurred in a number of school districts in Florida, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Texas and Virginia. They involve teachers helping students answer test questions, changing answers and grades and giving bogus grades to absent students.

One spectacular case involved a school district superintendent instructing a school principal on how to cheat. Others involved principals directing teachers to increase the test scores of students.

Another method of inflating school results is ‘gaming the system’. This includes suspending low achievers on test day, encouraging them to be absent on test day, increasing exemptions from tests and retaining students at a non-tested Year level. For example, several studies found that exemption rates increased in the US with the introduction of reporting school results, especially in high poverty schools.

The overseas experience of league table rankings is that they also bring substantial negative consequences for school systems, schools and many students.

A major effect is to increase disparities between schools and entrench social segregation between schools. As the more successful schools siphon off better students, better teachers and associated funding from other schools, the unpopular schools become the dumping ground for disadvantaged pupils and demoralised teachers. It often involves racial segregation as well.

Once a school develops a ‘bad’ reputation because of a low ranking it finds it increasingly difficult to attract the staff needed to improve results as good teachers move to where life seems easier. Teachers who are demoralised have low expectations of students with poor results.

The result is a two-tier school system – one group of schools for the well-off and the best teachers and another for the least well-off and the least qualified and experienced teachers.

League tables also distort curriculum and teaching. The allocation of resources within schools becomes biased towards the Year levels and curriculum areas that are subject to testing. For example, the arts and cultural activities are often down-graded. Student support and the social objectives of schooling also receive lower priority.

Teaching practice changes under the pressure of improving league table rankings. Teachers tend to adopt more lecturing and rote learning approaches and neglect learning experiences that develop deeper understanding and critical thinking.

Test preparation becomes a high priority, even often reducing student free time. For example, a growing concern in the US is the number of schools that have reduced or eliminated recesses in order to devote more time to test preparation.

League tables create incentives for schools to ignore the low-achieving students. Several English and US studies have found that schools concentrate on students who are on the border of accepted benchmarks and neglect the lowest achievers. Focusing on borderline students gives schools a better chance to improve their ranking.

Competition between schools for public rankings reduces collaboration and sharing of best practice between schools. Schools are reluctant to share their successful practices with other schools if it means those schools could jump above them in league table rankings.

Competition for league ranking also diverts energy and resources to marketing school image. Marketing image is used to attract students who will enhance a school’s ranking. School budgets and the time of school leaders are increasingly devoted to glossy brochures and prospectuses, slick promotional events and advertising. This is an easier way to improve a school’s ranking than effective school improvement which takes time and effort.

A key argument of advocates of league tables is that they inform parent choice of schools. However, league table rankings are misleading advertising because they are an inaccurate and misleading measure of school quality.

Average school results are influenced by many factors other than the quality of school programs and teaching. They include the extent of parent involvement in learning at home, the extent to which students are engaged in after hours tutoring, the socio-economic and cultural background of the community and student absenteeism.

League tables don’t distinguish between the ‘value added’ by the school and the influence of these other factors. For example, rankings may say more about the social composition of school enrolments than about the quality of teaching.

School results and league table rankings may also be distorted by the results of a few students in small schools and by transfers of students between schools. Studies show that small schools are much more likely to report large changes in average results from one year to the next, both positive and negative.

Stephen Smith argues that reporting of school results would assist in identifying struggling schools and those in need of intervention programs. However, this only reflects the ignorance of the Shadow Minister. This information is already available to Departments of Education and schools. Public reporting of school results is not needed to identify which schools are in need of more support and assistance in improving student outcomes.

There is an alternative to league tables to ensure public accountability for improving school performance. It involves reporting of aggregated school results in a way that does not identify individual schools but still ensures public accountability.

This can be done by reporting the number of schools in each state/territory whose average result falls within different score ranges so that the extent of improvement from year to year can be assessed. It could also include reporting the proportion of all students, and those from targeted equity groups, whose results fall within different score ranges so as to monitor progress in achieving greater equity in school outcomes.

Such reporting would ensure that Governments are held to account for making genuine improvements in low achieving schools and improving equity in student outcomes.

Federal Labor’s support for league tables means that it has cast its lot with the market approach to education delivery being implemented by the Howard Government. School league tables are fundamental to extending markets in education, which overseas research shows exacerbate social segregation and inequity in education.

The bi-partisan support for league tables also represents a break with nationally agreed goals of education to increase social equity in education in Australia. It will reinforce patterns of privilege and disadvantage in Australian schooling.

Trevor Cobbold