Why Some Teachers Cheat

Jun 11, 2008 by

Jacquie McTaggart

The fight-or-flight response, first described by Walter Cannon in 1915, says animals react to stress with a discharge of the sympathetic nervous symptom that primes the animal to fight or flee. This response is now recognized as the first stage of a general adaptation syndrome that regulates stress responses in humans.

Many of today’s teachers, stressed by the mandates and unattainable goals of No Child Left Behind, are fleeing. According to a study from the National Education Association, half of new U.S. teachers quit within the first five years. Some who aren’t fleeing are fighting back by using unethical testing procedures that inflate student test scores. Is this right? Of course not. Is it understandable? Absolutely.

“Schools are under incredible pressure to raise test scores,” says Joan Herman, director of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing at UCLA. “Teachers spend an incredible amount of time and energy focusing their curriculum on what is tested, and these pressures lead people to do some peculiar things.”

Teacher cheating is disturbing and regrettable, but with more and more riding on standardized test scores it’s no surprise. There’s an incentive to cheat when rewards of merit pay and bonuses, and punishments of school takeover and teacher transfer are associated with student test performance.

Experts agree that some of what is dubbed as teacher cheating may actually be confusion over the rules or a blurring of the ethical line – such as leaving study aids on the wall during testing or using body language (nodding or pointing) to let a student know he should recheck an answer.

Other teacher testing discretions are less innocuous and clearly wrong. Some teachers allow students to use calculators and consult world maps or reference sheets as they take their exams, and some read sections of the test to the students – a clear violation of the guidelines.

California uses an electronic scanner to spot unusually high numbers of erased answers that have been changed from wrong to right (presumably by teachers). Between 2004 and 2006 the scans indicated suspicious erasures in 459 classrooms at 162 schools.

Principal Alene Wheaton of Muir Elementary in San Francisco discovered and reported one of her third grade teacher’s unique method for administering “standardized” tests: Students answered questions on scratch paper, the teacher corrected them, and the students transferred the right answers to the test booklet.

Other reported testing violations include tailoring instruction to the test, practicing on exams from past years or on alternate forms of the test, looking at the test in advance and teaching its content, and giving students extra time.

It is impossible to know how common teacher cheating is. There is no monitoring once the teacher hangs the “Testing: Do Not Disturb” sign on a closed classroom door. Cases of test tampering by teachers have been documented in Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, New York, Texas and Virginia, but common sense suggests we have offenders in every state because all must dance to the federal government’s tune.

Texas may have no more “teacher cheaters” than any other state, but they have received the most press and have been given the blackest eye. In 2002 President Bush used the “Texas Miracle,” a study showing how mandatory standardized testing improved student achievement in that state, to help launch his nationwide NCLB accountability movement. In 2005 the Dallas Morning News uncovered and released to the public the cheating scandal that helped create that miracle.

Dallas Morning News investigative reporters found surprising gaps in almost 400 of 7,700 Texas public schools. For example, some students got the state’s lowest scores in reading but its highest scores in math. Some classes, ranked in the state’s top ten percent in reading one year, sank to the bottom ten percent the following year. That’s what happened at Wesley Elementary, a Houston school that was featured on Oprah and cited by President Bush for its miraculous turnaround in the 1990s.

After studying seven years of scores in the Chicago school system, Steven Levittt and Brian Jacob of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government concluded that teachers in three to six percent of classrooms are probably tampering with students’ tests. John Fremer, a testing expert with 40 years of experience, believes the percentage of teacher cheaters is likely higher than six percent.

Cheating has been around for as long as there have been tests, but the rewards and punishments created by No Child Left Behind has given teachers and administrators an incentive to manipulate the results of high-stakes tests. If a class scores well, the teacher is great and she earns a bonus. If a class scores poorly, it’s the teacher’s fault and she can be transferred to a less desirable position. Teacher cheating, although wrong, should not surprise us. We’ve backed teachers into a corner and they’re fighting back.

Policymakers need to understand that there’s a difference between using a test as a stethoscope to identify children who need extra help, and using it as a sledgehammer to determine which teachers are winners and which are losers.

No Child Left Behind, enacted to make teachers more accountable, has failed in every arena but one; it has given teachers an incentive to go against their moral fiber and cheat. As former Presidential candidate Joe Biden said, “It’s time to leave No Child Left Behind – behind.”

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