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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Will New Rules Curb High Stakes Cheating?

By Peter DeWitt — September 13, 2011 4 min read
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Recently there have been a few high profile cheating scandals in Atlanta and Philadelphia. The school systems blamed their behavior on school leaders who created a culture of fear all in an effort to make sure their school system would not remain on a “failing” list. These recent stories about cheating left me conflicted. Conflicted between the idea that high stakes testing means that much that school systems have to cheat in order to look better and the idea that we are teaching our students that cheating can be done when the stakes are high.

As much as each school has an excuse for cheating on high stakes testing, and as sad as it is that they thought that was their only option, there are students and teachers within those schools that are now suffering the consequences. Through these scandals students have lost faith in their schools because they understand that cheating is wrong. The reputations of those schools are tarnished and it will take a long time to get the positive reputation back but they can do it with the right leadership.

Blanket Rules
In an effort to stop school systems from cheating, some state education departments are establishing new rules on cheating on high stakes testing. The New York State Education Department (NYSED) is trying to establish new rules that will stop schools from cheating before it starts. Although I am happy to see a state taking the cheating scandal seriously, do blanket rules really need to be created to stop this problem?

Blanket rules are often created in order to stop an issue. However, making a blanket rule for all school systems when only a few are at fault seems like a waste of time. Most schools understand that cheating is wrong and make sure the tests are secure. Most times blanket rules do not work because the schools that were at fault, and those that planned to follow suit with cheating, would most likely not follow those rules in the first place. Do we really need to tell schools that cheating isn’t acceptable? Shouldn’t they know that already?

In the past few years during the summer, there have been older kids that have come to my school to spray graffiti on the walls when no one was around. Although they were caught on camera, would a sign that states “No Spraying Graffiti” have deterred them from writing vulgar words on the wall? Would they really look at the sign and say, “Oh! I didn’t know we couldn’t spray those words on the wall!” It doesn’t matter how many rules are created, dishonest people will find a way to break them. Until a strong person within the organization blows the whistle on the cheaters, it will not end. Why are schools paying for the cheating of a few? Is this symbolic to show the NYSED is doing their job?

Proctors and Time
One of the changes requires schools to change who proctors the exams in each classroom. Therefore a teacher will not be allowed to proctor the exam that their students are taking. Not only is this offensive to teachers because it treats them like cheaters, it will be impossible for schools to accommodate this request. In the past two years, because of declining budgets and a lack of funding, we have had to lay off teachers. We simply do not have the staff to cover different classrooms that are taking the test at the same exact time over the same exact number of days.

If we are going to treat teachers like cheaters before the exam, then changing staff around so each teacher proctors the exam of one of their colleagues will not be enough. If one teacher was going to cheat, or if the principal creates a culture of fear where cheating is commonplace, will it really matter whether we exchange a few proctors for another?

The reality is that all of these new changes seem to be one more step away from what schools need to do to properly educate their students. High stakes testing is harmful enough but now we have to abide by new rules that seem to tell us that our state education departments are out of touch with what school systems are doing. The hidden message seems to be that our state education departments do not trust us. This all happens at a time when high stakes testing has created a lack of trust toward the state education departments. The divisive issue of high stakes testing seems to be getting worse.

What’s the Real Issue?
I believe that the state education departments can play an active and positive role in the lives of students. There are many committees that do great work with schools but too often those committees are few and far between. It would be great if state education departments really listened to the input they always ask for from us.

The real issue seems to be that high stakes testing creates fear among students, teachers and administrators. Those individuals have the potential to go to extreme lengths to make sure that their school is not seen as a failing or sub-par school. Sadly, all of the other great things that they do throughout the year are lost in order to “perform” better on a test.

We seem to be moving in a direction where the next step will be to have state education “representatives” show up to each school to make sure the test is being given properly. As much as some administrators may be creating a culture of fear, it seems that culture of fear is ultimately being set by high stakes testing and state and federal education departments.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground 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.