The superior man understands what is right; the inferior man understands what will sell.
Hidden within this past weekend’s Peeping Pearson spying incident is a problem that is pervasive and increasing across the country—student cheating.
Bob Braun, former education reporter and news editor for The Star-Ledger, blogged about a student being monitored on social media by test publishing company Pearson. A New Jersey superintendent had been notified that a student in their district had tweeted something about the PARCC test on Twitter. This raised countless critical questions and concerns about what constitutes student privacy on social media.
Despite being appalled like most about the surveillance, I was curious about why this student put something about the test on Twitter in the first place. In fairness, the superintendent didn’t think it constituted cheating. But why did the student mention the test? Did someone set them up? Were they just goofing off? Was the student scoffing at the test? Were they trying to help someone who had not taken the test yet? If it wasn’t important, why did Pearson care enough to notify the superintendent?
What concerns me, is the impersonal nature of Pearson, a faraway testing company, playing gotcha with the student. It dismisses what is going on with the student if they are actually cheating. I am not accusing this student of cheating. I have no information to suggest such a thing.
But what happens to students when they get caught cheating this way? The Educational Testing Service (ETS) has a list of facts about cheating and the one that stands out most to me is this: Cheating no longer carries the stigma that it used to. Less social disapproval coupled with increased competition for admission into universities and graduate schools has made students more willing to do whatever it takes to get the A.
So test companies invest a lot of time, effort and money to monitor a student’s behavior, but they do not seem to help them understand why cheating is wrong. And as it seems to be the case here, they falsely accuse students of cheating. They don’t know the students. Put this together with the fact that many students have no respect for the test–they just want to get the scores–this sets a dangerous precedent.
It used to be (and I know it wasn’t perfect) if a teacher caught a student talking about the test, or copying and/or sharing answers, they’d march them to the principal’s office where the student would be reprimanded—maybe their test would be invalidated. Probably parents would get involved. If the adults were compassionate, they would question the student as to why they cheated. Were they afraid they were going to fail? Was the test too difficult? Did they have other problems? Were others involved? They would personally learn more about the student. They would try to understand why they cheated and get them the counseling they needed.
Rarely, there are students with sociopath tendencies who will cheat outright no matter what. I am not talking about that kind of student. I am talking about impressionable kids who, because of over-testing and the calculated cold purpose behind high-stakes testing–namely to shutter schools and fire teachers–convince themselves it is O.K. to cheat. They know the tests aren’t about them.
In his book The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves, Dan Ariely who is a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, discusses cheating. We are all capable of it, most of us do it, even if just a little, and we rationalize to ourselves that it is O.K. He also writes about the positive. He suggests that people who stand up against cheating and corruption stand as role models.
In addition, sometimes the motives behind why students cheat, although still wrong, make sense. In my book, I wrote about cheating and high-stakes testing. One of the examples I used is the 2012 cheating scandal involving students at New York City’s prestigious Stuyvesant High School. Notable graduates from Stuyvesant are too numerous to list, but if you are interested you can find them here.
In 2012, when students were caught sending test answers on their cell phones to other students, many wondered why such bright students would bother to cheat. It seemed uncharacteristic.
An investigation showed there were two interesting explanations for cheating.
- First, students were tired and didn’t get enough sleep. Many studies show that a teen’s sleep patterns are different than those of adults and children. Few schools are willing to accommodate students by changing their schedules, often citing a lack of funding. But think how such modifications could permit students to get better rest and help them to learn!
- Second, Stuyvesant students were tested on rote material that could easily be found on charts. They saw this as a waste of their time. Students given meaningless test prep work, who otherwise are rule-abiding, might rationalize that cheating is O.K. It becomes a slippery slope.
- Third. While cheating shouldn’t be justified, I found it interesting that Stuyvesant students also helped each other cheat by sharing answers. They essentially practiced what Ariely describes as “collaborative cheating.”
The danger in all this is that getting used to rationalizing cheating, creating a climate where cheating makes sense, when it is over high-stakes testing, and where students see it only as a chore to get a score, might carry over to other situations. It could lead to students being disgraced in the future or lead to actual damage–even hurting others. Students could learn to cheat in college and later in their careers.
Take, for example, cheating scandals in colleges. Some of them involve adults!
- Controversy erupted at Harvard in 2012 when around 125 students were caught cheating. One half of the students received probation. Some felt the punishment was too severe, others didn’t think it went far enough.
- More recently, Dartmouth College students were caught cheating in an ethics class!
- The University of North Carolina cheating scandal involved 18 years of permitting students to do little work while they played sports.
- In 2007, dozens of Indiana University dentistry school students were investigated for being a part of a cheating ring. Nine students were dismissed, 6 suspended, and 21 reprimanded.
- In 2007, Florida State University saw 61 athletes (25 football players) involved in a cheating ring where tutors gave them answers to the test questions and typed papers for them.
- In 2007, Diablo Valley College had an alleged “sex for grades” scandal. Dozens of students were suspected of paying school employees $600 to alter their grades, and some were also exchanging sexual favors.
- Baruch College’s business professors were accused of padding students’ grades for $45,000-$75,000 tuition checks.
- In 1994, an electrical engineering exam was sold for $50 a copy at the Naval Academy.
- Thirty-four students from Duke’s Fuqua School of Business collaborated on a take home exam. Fifteen students were suspended for a year and failed the class, while nine students were expelled. Others failed the class and/or the assignment.
In 1999 a basketball manager and several tutors at the University of Minnesota wrote more than 400 papers for students.
In 2011, in Long Island 20 people were arrested for paying others to take the SAT test for them. Students paid $250 for an SAT score.
- Students in medical school cheat. A survey of 2,459 medical students found that 39% had witnessed cheating in their first 2 years of medical school, and 66.5% had heard about cheating. About 5% reported having cheated during that time. Students appeared resigned to the fact of cheating, but lacked consensus about how to proceed when witnessing it. Guidance in intervening in ethical situations is recommended.
Many cheating scandals involve sports. David Fleming, in a report for ESPN said: There’s so much cheating going on, in fact, that I had to consciously narrow the focus of this column — no steroids, no PEDs, no point shaving, no bounty scandals, no fake classes or illegal payments to college kids. There simply isn’t enough time or bandwidth to cover it all here. And I, for one, am tired of all the rationalizing. Spying on opponents or deflating footballs isn’t gamesmanship or pushing the envelope, and it doesn’t fall under the ignorant NASCAR creed of, “If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.”
Sadly, I could go on writing about cheating scandals. Cheating that frightens me the most involve researchers–especially those who do medical research.
Pearson might not be to blame for creating cheaters directly. But online testing and the tests themselves are creating a cold impersonal school environment.
The good news is that there are more parents and educators standing up and questioning today’s harmful testing and draconian reforms. They represent, in my opinion, the role models Ariely mentions. In some places, students themselves are standing up against harmful tests! Here in Chicago. Here in Hartford. Here in Louisiana. Here in Colorado. I could go on.
Students should be provided the kind of assessment and schooling that will be useful to them in the long-run. Simply put, schools need to respect and care for their students. That might go a long way towards making cheating on tests obsolete.
Ariely, Dan. The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone Especially Ourselves. (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2012).
Bailey, Nancy. Misguided Education Reform: Debating the Impact on Students. (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2013) 36-38.
The 10 Biggest College Cheating Scandals. Business Insider.