Education Opinion

No Surprise, Cheating Is Widespread

By Walt Gardner — March 26, 2012 1 min read
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It’s axiomatic that when the stakes are high enough in any field there will be cheating. But what is news is the extent of the problem in education. In the best tradition of investigative reporting, The Atlanta Journal Constitution found suspicious test scores in some 200 school districts across the nation (“Cheating our children: Suspicious school test scores across the nation,” Mar. 24).

A team of three reporters and two database specialists spent five months under freedom of information laws examining test results in math and reading at 69,000 public schools in 14,743 districts in 49 states. (Nebraska didn’t administer a statewide test until last year.) Although they concluded that their analysis does not definitively prove cheating, it’s hard not to draw that inference based on the available evidence. I say that because when test scores change dramatically from one year to another in the absence of any other possible cause, it’s almost always the result of cheating. It’s hard to believe that exemplary instruction suddenly accounted for the results.

Not surprisingly, improbable improvement took place most often in large-to medium-sized urban districts and in rural districts. They were also twice as likely to occur in charter schools as in traditional schools. That’s because these districts are under the most pressure to post improved outcomes compared with suburban districts. However, it’s a mistake to assume that cheating in one form or another does not take place in affluent suburban districts, as the recent SAT cheating scandal at Great Neck North High School on Long Island, New York attests (“Exam Cheating on Long Island Hardly a Secret,” The New York Times, Dec. 1, 2011).

I’ve written before about Campbell’s Law as an explanation for cheating (“Campbell’s Law Strikes Again,” Jun. 21, 2010). So I won’t go into it again, nor will I bemoan the obvious. Instead, I’d like to ask why we are shocked when cheating occurs. After all, reformers demand a business approach to education, and yet cheating scandals are uncovered with increasing frequency in Corporate America. If you lie down with dogs, you wake up with fleas.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check 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.