Cheating, Honestly

Whatever one thinks of the heavy reliance on standardized tests in U.S. public education, one of the things on which there is wide agreement is that cheating must be prevented, and investigated when there’s evidence it might have occurred.

For anyone familiar with test-based accountability, recent cheating scandals in Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and elsewhere are unlikely to have been surprising. There has always been cheating, and it can take many forms, ranging from explicit answer-changing to subtle coaching on test day. One cannot say with any certainty how widespread cheating is, but there is every reason to believe that high-stakes testing increases the likelihood that it will happen. The first step toward addressing that problem is to recognize it.

A district, state or nation that is unable or unwilling to acknowledge the possibility of cheating, do everything possible to prevent it, and face up to it when evidence suggests it has occurred, is ill-equipped to rely on test-based accountability policies. 

Cheating In Online Courses

Our guest author today is Dan Ariely, James B Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University, and author of the book The Honest Truth About Dishonesty (published by Harper Collins in June 2012).

A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education suggests that students cheat more in online than in face-to-face classes. The article tells the story of Bob Smith (not his real name, obviously), who was a student in an online science course.  Bob logged in once a week for half an hour in order to take a quiz. He didn’t read a word of his textbook, didn’t participate in discussions, and still he got an A. Bob pulled this off, he explained, with the help of a collaborative cheating effort. Interestingly, Bob is enrolled at a public university in the U.S., and claims to work diligently in all his other (classroom) courses. He doesn’t cheat in those courses, he explains, but with a busy work and school schedule, the easy A is too tempting to pass up.

Bob’s online cheating methods deserve some attention. He is representative of a population of students that have striven to keep up with their instructor’s efforts to prevent cheating online. The tests were designed in a way that made cheating more difficult, including limited time to take the test, and randomized questions from a large test bank (so that no two students took the exact same test).

Underestimating Context (But Selectively)

Imagine that for some reason you were lifted out of your usual place in society and dropped into somebody else’s spot — the place of someone whose behavior you have never understood. For example, you are an anarchist who suddenly becomes a top cabinet member. Or you are an environmentalist who is critical of big business who suddenly finds yourself responsible for developing environmental policy for ExxonMobil or BP.

As systems thinker Donella Meadows points out in her book Thinking in Systems, in any given position, "you experience the information flows, the incentives and disincentives, the goals and discrepancies, the pressure […] that goes with that position." It’s possible, but highly unlikely, that you might remember how things looked from where you were before. If you become a manager, you’ll probably see labor less as a deserving partner, and more as a cost to be minimized. If you become a labor leader, every questionable business decision will start to seem like a deliberate attack on your members.

How do we know?

The best psychological experiments ask questions about human nature. What makes a person strong? Or evil? Are good and evil dispositional hardwired traits, permanent once unleashed? Or is there something about the situations in which people find themselves that influences their behavior?

Atlanta: Bellwether Or Whistleblower For Test-Driven Reform?

Early in the life of No Child Left Behind, one amateur but insightful futurist on the Shanker Institute Board remarked to me: "Well, if you tie teacher pay, labeling failing schools, and evaluations of teachers and principals all to student test results—guess what?—you’ll get student test results. But some 20, years down the road when these kids get out of high school, we may discover they don’t know anything."

The quip did not necessarily suggest that we were headed for massive cheating scandals. Nor did it mean that students should never be assessed to find out how well they were learning what had been taught. It was just a warning that the incentives to produce score results would produce them —one way or another—and whether or not they stood for any true reflection on learning. Meaning, in this case, that a system that defines success narrowly in terms of test score gains will, at minimum, invite exaggerated claims and, at worst, encourage corruption.

An important report was released this spring that should bring some U. S. education "reformers" up short as they pursue policies based on test-based incentives. Instead, Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Education, by the National Research Council (NRC), was received as a blip on their screens. A serious research review, the report looked at "15 test-based incentive programs, including large scale policies of NCLB, its predecessors, and state high school exit exams as well as a number of experiments and programs carried out in the United States and other countries." Its conclusion: "Despite using them [test-based incentives] for several decades, policymakers and educators do not yet know how to consistently generate positive effects on achievement and to improve education."

In other words, given the methods we are now using to grant performance pay, design evaluation plans, or fix low performing schools, these incentives don’t work. Moreover, looking at recent education history, they haven’t worked for quite a long time.