Cheating to Improve School Results is Rampant

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.

Trevor Cobbold

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