Cheating Scandals Reaffirm, Not Diminish, Testing

Not until the trials (or plea bargains) are over, will a verdict be rendered on former Superintendent Beverly Hall’s guilt or innocence in what is called the Atlanta cheating scandal. Hall’s indictment follows on the heels of finding El Paso Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia guilty last Fall. He is now serving three and a half years in jail (see here and here).

Even before a judge or jury decides on her guilt or innocence, anti-testing groups, feeding on Atlanta, El Paso, and the investigation of tampering with test scores under Washington, D.C. school chief, Michelle Rhee, have grabbed the case to further their cause. Moreover, over the years, journalists have uncovered oddities in test scores jumping sky-high in one year in other districts across the nation.

Foes of standardized tests feel the rush of adrenalin in saying that these examples of dishonest adults raising student test scores to receive applause and cash awards are pervasive. Defenders of standardized testing and accountability, however, see the  cheating as exceptions, as a few rotten apples in a barrel full of worm-free ones. Most educators, advocates of test-driven accountability say, are decent, hard working professionals who play by the rules and can be trusted to do the right thing.

In this volleying back-and-forth between advocates and foes of standardized testing,  school scandals have been compared to cheating in baseball, bicycle racing, and other sports.

From Mark McGuire‘s stained home run record to Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong‘s admission that he doped while racing, these and other sports have come under a dark cloud of suspicion–an outcome damaging to top athletes, companies dependent upon income derived from professional sports, fans turning into cynics, and disappointed youth who only want to play the game by the rules.

Cheating in both sports and schools can be traced to the unleashed and fierce competition in performing better and better to gain ever-larger rewards. Professional sports are money machines and being a top performer is rewarded handsomely; scores on international tests, ranking schools within a state and district based on performance, a broader array of school choices, and federal regulations in No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top  have ratcheted upward intense pressure to beat  state tests.

Also common to school cheating and drug-drenched sports is betraying the public trust to gain personal advantage.  When adults erase student answers and professional athletes take illegal drugs to enhance performance, such acts erode the faith that adults and youth have in social institutions being fair.

Another common feature is the unshaken confidence that current authorities have in written and computerized tests assessing student learning and drug tests determining whether athletes are cheating. When cheating is uncovered, few decision-makers question the tests. Tighter security and better tests are the solutions.

*Few decision-makers question whether there might be something wrong in professional athletics (i.e., expansion of baseball, football, hockey, and basketball leagues and over-the-top competition for more money).

*Few decision-makers question whether most toddlers and young children from low-income families should be tested especially since they bring to school very different strengths and weaknesses than children from middle and upper-income homes. Or that such early testing of young children squeezes inequities into judgments of what they can and cannot do in preschool and elementary school classrooms.

*Few decision-makers question the national obsession with student test scores as the correct metric to judge schools, teachers, and students.

This deep reluctance to question powerful interests invested in socioeconomic structures and cultures in which cheating occurs is why I believe that standardized tests in schools, like drug testing in sports, will be reaffirmed rather than overturned. There will be continuing challenges–as there should be–but standardized testing will remain rock-solid. Why?

First, note that most of the cheating incidents have been largely in districts where high percentages of poor and minority students attend school. Sure, there are exceptions but when you look closely at where dishonesty is found, those charters and regular public schools enroll large numbers of children from low-income families. I have yet to find any district school boards, investigators, charter school leaders or policymakers recommend examining the tests to see if they do what they are supposed to do or, after conducting such an examination, finding unworthy tests and getting rid of them. Yes, there have been protests by educators, students, and middle- and upper-middle class families against too much standardized testing (see here and here). These protests have led to occasional boycotts but none have occurred, to my knowledge, in poor neighborhoods. If anything, there is a reaffirmation of tests, calls for greater security, and plaudits for any whistle-blowers.

The point is that these tests sort students and schools by scores that  reinforce rather than erase existing gaps in achievement. And sorting is necessary to determine who, beginning at the age of four, shall climb each rung of that ladder reaching college. The system of private and public schooling requires such tests to distinguish high achievers from others. If the tests were really that accurate in making such distinctions across children and youth of being smart on paper, with people, and in life now and later, then, perhaps we need such tests . But that is not the case now… by a long shot.

Second, to underscore the above point, consider the experience of cheating on the SAT. After a scandal revealed that high-scoring individuals with fake IDs were paid to take the SAT test, Educational Testing Service tightened security at test sites. No challenges of the test itself occurred. SAT scores remain crucial for college admission and no school boards, teachers, or parent groups called for the end of the test.

Count on cheaters getting more clever and investigators still hunting them down. Amid increasing numbers of cheating incidents, standardized tests will be challenged, maybe the numbers even reduced, but nonetheless, they will reign for the immediate future.



Filed under leadership, school reform policies, testing

16 responses to “Cheating Scandals Reaffirm, Not Diminish, Testing

  1. I hope you are kidding. I suspect that some level of cheating happens in just about every school. Check this list of 50 ways to cheat and I think you might agree. The idea of one-size-fits-all assessments is repugnant. Try watching a a child with a cognitive disability being forced to take the same test as everyone else and forced to spend twice as much time doing so. The only test a child should take is the one they are ready for with unlimited retakes. You can then assess students by how far they get and the notion of failure goes away. We need voices like yours to fight this madness rather than throw in the towel. I just hope you were trying to be critical of the system in a clever way.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks very much for your comment, Doug. The truth is that I am not too good at being clever in my writing.

  2. This issue has intrigued me for years, not least because I would argue one of the things good schools do is ensure children assimilate the ethical standards around the entire notion of cheating that help them grow into decent adults and citizens.

    Contrast that with an event I attended about a decade ago, where a UK civil servant, responsible for spending billions of public money on education technology, told a large audience of concerned business colleagues that he had no problem with children using technology to plagiarise, on the grounds that he used to copy others’ work when he was an undergraduate and therefore considered it common practice.

    One of the most insightful things to read on the issue is Willy Voet’s book, “Breaking the Chain” in which he exposes all the drugs offences committed by the Festina cycling team he worked for in the 1990s. Voet explains, amongst other things, just how slippery the cheating slope really is. How it was a short step from using sophisticated drugs, to actually driving a group of professional riders hidden in a car, so that they missed some of the worst climbs in a stage race, and could rejoin it at a later point.

    He also explains how he gave the French rider, Richard Virenque, a placebo one one mountain stage of the Tour because he was afraid of using the experimental drug Virenque was pleading with him to supply….Virenque won the stage and rode possibly the best race of his entire career.

    There are never any grey areas in cheating, not in the exam room…or any other room.

  3. A school system devoted to standardized testing is one that is at odds with intellectual curiosity and real education. In a microcosm of this issue, one sees students who are obsessed with results, not content nor actual learning. How ironic that many students are fighting to get into university only to discover that higher education in many areas does not qualify them for a job. I have said this before but the millions of dollars that are poured into the bureaucracy of testing should be funneled into elementary classrooms that educate the whole child.

  4. Jim

    Obviously having tests administered by people whose remuneration depends on the results of the tests creates a huge conflict of interest. It is analogous to having a financial statement of a business audited by the CEO whose compensation will depend on how good the statement looks.
    Quite aside from the merits or demerits of testing in general all tests of student accomplishment which will affect the compensation of school staff should be conducted by outside independent auditors whose compensation will not be affected by the results they report.

  5. jturner56

    Like Douglas, a bit perplexed by this post Larry. Are you saying that high-pressure testing (and therefore expectations of cheating) are the price we have to pay to uphold the system’s integrity. Or that it’s just part and parcel of modern society so we should just learn to live with it’s inevitability? Or that it’s an upholder of social disadvantage and should be addressed as such? Or it’s of limited value against learning requirements for a Digital Age (sorry, this one’s just my take) Or just trying to have a bit each way? Never see such greyness when you are discussing digital technologies in schools. As always appreciate your insights even if provoking. John

    • larrycuban

      Here is what you asked:
      “Are you saying that high-pressure testing (and therefore expectations of cheating) are the price we have to pay to uphold the system’s integrity.” Yes, although I would phrase it differently. It is the price to pay when these test-driven structures are the law of the land–not “system’s integrity.” Nonetheless, those structures should be challenged again and again.

      “Or that it’s just part and parcel of modern society so we should just learn to live with it’s inevitability?” Yes, testing and accountability are part of the ideology of making schools better in order to build a stronger economy but it is not inevitable. The above reigning schools-as-arm-of-economy ideology was present a century ago and has been dominant since the late 1970s. It is not inevitable which is why challenges to these ideas and practices must continue.

      Or that it’s an upholder of social disadvantage and should be addressed as such?

  6. BB

    We got involved in high-stakes testing because we thought that the tests would make school systems work harder to educate disadvantaged children. They certainly did remove the curtain of ignorance from our understanding of how well (or not well) urban school systems were performing. The problem is the stakes that have been attached to the tests, and the amount of time that is devoted to preparing for and taking them.

    How can we remove those high stakes, so that the tests are 1) reasonable in their extent; and 2) not used punitively?

    • larrycuban

      I have no recipes for removing “those high stakes” other than challenging them with data that shows they are unreasonable and used punitively. Educators speaking out is a first step. Thanks for commenting on the post.

  7. I’m an English teacher in an Italian secondary school, here we’ve been forced to adopt standardized testing only recently. Those who are against them, for the same reasons you have pointed out, are quite numerous, many schools, on a national scale, have boycotted them consistently, yet our Ministers of Public Education, both left-wing and right-wing, support them. As you, and some of the other comments, underline it is a matter of money and conflict of interest, it has very little to do with giving our students a better opportunity at education. I cannot but agree with this point of view, and it’s really sad to accept the fact that we will have to come to terms with this reality since it’s here to stay. This really puts a damp on those of us who are fighting against them in school councils, in departments, because if in the U.S. there is no hope of doing away with this terrible system of assessing stundents’ skills and learning, how can we expect to do better on the other side of the ocean since our politicians have copied the American standardized testing system and are selling it as the best ever on the market? Personally I’ve only learned of this lively on-going debate in the U.S. through your blog and Diane Ravitch’s blog, so thank you for your contribution, it’s inspiring. Lucia

    • larrycuban

      Thank you, Lucia, for your comments. I had not known of the adoption by the Italian government of a similar system of standardized tests. I would not call the situation in the U.S. hopeless. Increasingly, challenges to the test-driven accountability regulations have been made by teachers,administrators, school boards, and academics. These challenges gain media attention but state actions to reduce the number of tests (Texas is one example of I know of) and pulling back from wholly evaluating teachers on the basis of student test scores have been isolated. Without challenges, however, nothing will happen.

      • I’m very happy to hear that in the U.S. it isn’t hopeless and I absolutely agree with you, without challenging the system there wouldn’t even be a chance of changing the situation. The thing is that in our case, in Italy, it all began on a voluntary basis but as the years have gone by it has become compelling for all schools thanks to many principals’ compliance with the testing since it indirectly provides funds for the best performing schools, but this is slowly breaking down our education system which is meant to give equal opportunities to all our students regardless of income, cultural background, as plainly stated in our Constitution, and transforming our schools in businesses that need to be productive. Well thanks again, like I said before, your blog is inspiring and also enlighting on many other topics as well. Have a nice day, Lucia.

      • larrycuban


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