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Published in Print: June 21, 2000, as As Stakes Rise, Definition of Cheating Blurs

As Stakes Rise, Definition of Cheating Blurs

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A Reston, Va., teacher was suspended for drilling students on questions that appeared on the state's social studies test. Yet teachers at a Chicago school weren't reprimanded for using a test-prep manual that included questions bearing a striking resemblance to ones that appeared on the city's 10th grade reading exam.

The difference?

The Virginia teacher illegally obtained the test, school administrators allege, in an attempt to raise students' scores. The Chicago teachers taught from a test-preparation guide they did not know included questions similar to ones that would appear on the reading portion of the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills their students would be taking.

That contrast shows the difficulties administrators face in defining—let alone investigating—cheating in the age of high-stakes testing. Relief is not likely to come anytime soon, warn school officials and testing experts, who forecast that the amount of cheating will rise along with the stakes.

Each state and district defines cheating differently, depending on the purposes and procedures of the exam. But for all the complex rules education officials write to govern their testing programs, administrators often rely on a standard similar to the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's definition of pornography: "I know it when I see it."

For most teachers and school administrators, cheating starts when educators improperly acquire test questions and then drill their students based on the illicit information.

"You draw the line when you have a copy of the test that's going to be given and you design instruction directly off those items," said Cameron M. Harris, Virginia's assistant superintendent for assessment and reporting.

But some say that test preparation like that at Langston Hughes Middle School in Reston and Westinghouse High School in Chicago— if not cheating—is, at the least, poor educational practice.

"It's a very short-term strategy that will only result in shallow learning at best," said Eva L. Baker, a co-director of the Center on Educational Standards and Student Testing at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Incentive To Cheat?

In recent years, state accountability rules have increasingly pressured school administrators to prove that their students are learning, often at levels that exceed previous expectations. The main measure has been state- and district-sponsored tests.

Rewards vary from financial bonuses to positive press in the local newspaper. The consequences differ as well, from unwanted state intervention to the loss of jobs.

As a result, principals and teachers feel under the gun to boost test scores. Occasionally, they take the easiest route: They cheat.

In recent months, scandals or allegations of wrongdoing have been reported from coast to coast. Among the incidents:

  • The Woodland, Calif., Joint Unified School District suspended seven high school science teachers for photocopying a version of the Stanford Achievement Test- 9th Edition—the state's high-stakes test—and teaching the content that appeared in it.
  • School officials are investigating whether teachers at Chicago's Carpenter Elementary School erased students' test forms, filled in correct answers, and completed test sheets that students had left unfinished.
  • A special investigator for the New York City school system has issued two reports since December alleging that 61 principals and teachers conspired to raise test scores on state and district tests by handing out answer sheets, correcting students' work as they took the test, and other clearly illicit procedures.
  • Across the Potomac River from Reston, Va., the Montgomery County, Md., district suspended one teacher and accepted the resignation of the principal of Potomac Elementary School for testing irregularities. The school, in an affluent suburban area, had performed at or near the top of Maryland's testing program for several years.

All those cases occurred in states and districts that offer financial awards or penalties based on students' test scores.

"That's the danger of monetary awards," said Robert T. Ferrett, the director of educational accountability for the 37,000-student Riverside district east of Los Angeles. "They just may lead to the temptation to do a little more cheating. We have to face that reality."

The pressured-packed environment also has led to accusations of cheating that haven't panned out. Earlier this month, the Ohio education department cleared Eastgate Elementary School in Columbus of students' allegations that an adult had pointed to the bubbles on an answer sheet that coincided with the correct answers.

State investigators found that the tutor students had identified as helping with the test wasn't even at the school the day of the testing, according to Patricia A. Grey, a spokeswoman for the state education department.

While the state confirmed what a local investigation found, Columbus Superintendent Rosa Smith is asking for help from the state in handling any future investigation. Ms. Smith is especially interested in hearing when she should turn over allegations of cheating to the state, according to Terri Gehr, a spokeswoman for the district.

President Clinton praised the school for its improved test scores when he visited there last month. ("Clinton Turns Spotlight on Performance," May 10, 2000.)

Fine Lines

At Chicago's Westinghouse High School, district officials decided against disciplining teachers because they didn't purposely try to inflate student test scores, according to Cozette M. Buckney, the chief education officer for the 431,000-student district. The teachers simply used materials provided them by the test publisher, she said. What's more, only four of the test's 60 questions were at issue.

At Virginia's Langston Hughes Middle School in Reston, school officials suspended the 8th grade social studies teacher, whom they have not publicly identified, because they believe he acted intentionally to give his students an advantage on the test. Administrators required 101 students to take an alternative form of the test, according to Daniel A. Domenech, the superintendent of the 160,000-student Fairfax County district in suburban Washington.

Fairfax investigators suspect that the teacher had read through the social studies test booklet while proctoring an exam in a different subject several days before his students took the social studies test, Mr. Domenech said.

If the allegations are true, the Virginia education department's Ms. Harris said, the teacher violated an affidavit he signed promising not to review the content of the test while he proctored.

Any Virginia teacher caught stealing is subject to suspension, firing, or the loss of his or her state certification. A new state law that goes into effect on July 1 will put them in jeopardy of prosecution for violating the affidavit, Ms. Harris said. Every state takes such precautions to ensure the secrecy of its tests and specifies what constitutes improper behavior by students and adults.

Regulations for the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, for example, say that it's improper for proctors to distribute the exams to students before testing formally begins; to coach students while they take the test; to photocopy test booklets; or to fail to monitor students while they take the assessment.

The rules also include a blanket clause: "All conduct with respect to test administration and data reporting will be reviewed under a reasonable-person standard, that is, what a reasonable person would do under similar circumstances."

In Chicago, Ms. Buckney said, investigators apply a similarly subjective standard. They look to see if teachers or students were intentionally cheating, whether anything the teachers did gave the students an unfair advantage, or whether they used any materials that could have given them an advantage.

But even when behavior is obvious, it's not easy to decide whether cheating occurred.

In the Woodland, Calif., schools, teachers are appealing their suspensions, which ranged from one to five days, to an arbitrator. The teachers say they did not know they were preparing their students based on a copy of the Stanford-9.

Next Up: Student Cheating

While cheating appears to be on the rise, school officials say it is still rare.

Still, chiefly adults are feeling the pressure from the high-stakes nature of tests. Soon, most states will be giving tests that students will have to pass to advance to the next grade or to graduate.

In Virginia, the class that will enter 9th grade in the fall will need to pass exams in six subjects to earn a standard diploma and nine to receive an advanced diploma, according to Ms. Harris, the state testing director.

By then, the state will be prepared to investigate an anticipated rise in the number of students cheating, she added.

"It would be naive of me to believe [cheating] is not going to happen," she said.

Vol. 19, Issue 41, Pages 1,14-16

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