Education Opinion

How to Cheat on State Standardized Tests and Not Get Caught

By Starr Sackstein — May 31, 2015 9 min read
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Guest post by Dr. Doug Green

Recently, the Atlanta, Georgia cheating scandal has been in the news as many of the people involved have been convicted, and incredibly sent to prison. This is insane. I thought prison was a place for people who were dangerous or who committed some serious crime.

For students, the standard penalty for cheating is a zero on the exam or perhaps automatic failure of the course. At worst you get booted from school if you attend a military academy or some other school that is more interested in punishing students than having them learn from their mistakes.

While I never got caught cheating, I did my share, and even participated in organized cheating as part of my college fraternity. Back then, I saw it as collaboration and beating the system. Unfortunately for many in and around the education business, collaboration is cheating. Nowhere else is this the case. If you have a job to do, does your boss ever care if you dialed a friend, asked an expert, or polled the audience?

Collaboration is Cheating

It could be my college experience that leads me to write this article. I’m not encouraging anyone to follow the advice given here, but I’m sure that many have already done so. The fact is that any time you create a game, people will game the system, and that is just what our current test and punish culture has lead to. The people in Atlanta got caught because they were sloppy and went too far with their erasing parties.

Unfortunately for them, modern scanners can read most erasures. This means that for any test, you can tell how many erasures went from incorrect to correct or visa versa. If all or most of the erasures head in the former direction, cheating is fairly certain. If it happens on all the tests from a class or a school, you better have a really good lawyer, and be ready to make a plea deal like some of the folks in Atlanta did.

Not All Erasures Are Created Equal

If you are going to do some erasing, you better be selective and not get carried away. Here are my tips. On the papers of your top students and your bottom students, don’t erase anything. The top students will pass anyway, and the bottom students will require so many erasures that you will easily get caught.

Focus on your bubble kids. Teachers know which kids are near the passing line. For these kids, one more correct question could make the difference between passing or not. Here is where selective erasing could pay off. I wouldn’t correct more than two questions per test. I would use a high-end eraser, and use almost a surgical technique.

If you can, find someone with a high-end scanner like the ones used to actually score the tests and see if it can spot your erasures. If it can, be very careful. If it can’t, don’t get carried away. You want a few more kids to pass, but you don’t want so many to pass that you stick out from the pack.

Is Sorting Kids Ethical?

Although test makers deny it, the tests are essentially norm-referenced tests. I say that because they use something that test geeks call “Item Response Theory” to construct the exams. They also pre-test items and look for items that discriminate between learners of various ability rather than items that simply test what a student knows. Then they create the tests by using sets of items that discriminate over the entire range of student abilities. One ideal item would discriminate between all smart and all very smart students.

Others would do so for students at other positions in the range of student ability. Knowing this, you want to make sure that the items you erase are the easiest ones that a given student has missed. If a student in the middle of the pack gets too many difficult questions correct, cheating will be strongly suspected.

Time is on Your Side

These tests are timed, and it isn’t unusual for many students to either rush to finish or not finish at all. Ironically, students with very low cognitive function are given twice as much time to suffer on exams they have no business taking in the first place. If your school is like the one where I was principal, tests are given behind closed doors with “testing in progress, do not interrupt” signs on the door. In other words, the only adult who knows what goes on is the teacher proctoring the test, and this is usually the teacher of the students taking the test.

If I were teaching, I would simply give my students as much time as they needed and tell them not to rush. Who’s going to know besides me? I doubt the students would have a clue.

It’s Easier to Improve if You Suck

Most of the efforts I have seen to fire poor teachers depend on at least two consecutive years of poor performance on the tests combined with other criteria. If this is the case, it’s fine if your students do crappy year one as long as they do better year two.

This might prompt some teachers to sabotage scores year one, which would be pretty easy to do. Just make sure no one has time to finish and you should be all set. You could even spend less time preparing students for the test so they won’t be familiar with the test format. If an entire school followed this approach, the school would qualify for most improved awards the following year.

My school got one of these when a bad year was followed by a good year. Most of this is the result of regression to the mean. This means that if you’re bad enough, you are not likely to be as bad next year. Top schools can suffer from this also as when you are on top, the only way to go is down.

Cheaters Gonna Cheat, Cheat, Cheat, Cheat, Cheat ...

Most teachers are concerned about students cheating on assessments of all kinds, and usually take action to control cheating opportunities. When I taught chemistry, I created two copies of each test with the choices arranged in different orders. My guiding principle was “lead them not into temptation.”

When it comes to the state tests, however, you just might want to lower the cheating barriers. Don’t spread out the seats, and spend most of the testing sessions reading a book rather then using the old eagle eye to discourage wandering eyes.

You could even arrange seating so that your bubble kids are sitting next to your wizards. Then after the state tests, be sure to go back to your normal cheating prevention routine.

The Cellphone is Mightier Than the Sword

After the last set of exams in New York, cellphone pictures of exam pages circulated on the Internet. I wouldn’t suggest that you do that as there is nothing for you to gain personally, but you might consider taking pictures for your own use.

In New York, teachers aren’t even supposed to look at the tests. Is there no end to the madness? It seems if you could study previous exams you just might be able to better prepare students for next year’s tests. Beware that you just may have to sign your life away promising that you did everything exactly the way the test directions demanded, but who’s going to know?

Suppose You Get to Do Some Grading

Although the multiple choice tests are graded by scanners, many tests include items where students have to do some writing to show their work. This requires that humans do the grading. Just who does the grading depends on where you live. In a few cases schools grade their own tests, although I doubt any teachers grade their own students’ tests. In other cases, tests are sent to another school or to central locations.

When I was still working, I did some grading and found it to be a great way to see what students could do and how they think. Part of the problem with human grading is that there is room for judgment, and not all graders have the same judgment. Certainly some are harder graders than others.

The test companies also hire non-teachers to grade tests and pay them as little a $12 an hour. So much for excellence. If you are involved in grading, be as generous as possible. This may not help kids in your school, but you will be helping someone.

Fixing the Field Tests

The companies who make these tests have to pre test the items so they know how difficult each item is and how well it discriminates. Remember, the goal is to sort kids, not find out what they know. In some cases, so-called field tests are given in the spring after the “real” tests. In my school, one grade each year had to take a field test in either ELA or math.

You can imagine how the teachers and students in the lucky grade felt when I showed up with another load of testing sludge. We always told the kids that the tests didn’t count and to just be sure to fill in all the bubbles. We didn’t tell them to do it randomly, but there was no effort to get them to do their best. If you wanted to be really devious, you could fill in the bubbles yourself in a way that would make the results even less valid than they already are.

The other way items are pre tested is to put new items on the real tests that don’t count. I see this as unethical as it is possible that any student might spend extra time struggling on items that don’t count rather than on items that do count.

What Would I Really Do

If you haven’t figured it out yet, this article was written with tongue firmly in cheek. So what do I really recommend? If I were still principal I would do now what I did then. Simply tell the teachers to create interesting, engaging lessons that get the students excited about learning, and don’t even think about the tests until just before they are given.

Lessons should help students internalize important knowledge and use it along with new knowledge to solve problems and be creative. At least three times a day make sure they get out of their seats and move around. Take them for a walk, do some stairs, and throw in some other exercises.

One week prior to the tests, tell the students that it’s time to get ready for the “testing game.” Teach them how to game multiple choice questions along with any other testing tricks you have learned over the years. Focus on how it doesn’t matter how well they do as long as they do their best, and no matter what happens you still love them.

Remember, the first and most important thing a teacher does is develop a strong relationship with each individual student. As for the above advice, I see no problem giving students a little extra time to finish. My goal here is to do my small part to take down a system that just about any educator I know thinks is bad for kids and by extension, our society as a whole. I encourage my readers to look for opportunities to do the same.

Dr. Doug Green is a former teacher of chemistry, physics, and computer science. He has held administrative positions of K-12 science chair, district director of computer services, director of instruction, and elementary principal. He teaches leadership courses for teachers working on administrative certification, and has authored hundreds of articles in computer magazines and educational journals. He retired in 2006 to care for his wife who had Lou Gehrig’s disease. After her death in March of 2009, he started his blog at //DrDougGreen.Com to provide free resources and book summaries for busy educators and parents. You can follow him on Twitter @DrDougGreen.

The opinions expressed in Work in Progress are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.