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Two recent surveys provide alarming evidence of widespread student cheating. In one poll, conducted by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, 70 percent of high school students and 54 percent of middle school students admitted to cheating on an exam at least once in the previous 12 months. In the other survey, a poll of top students conducted by Who's Who Among American High School Students, 80 percent of the respondents said that they cheated, and most said cheating is "no big deal."

Adults react to such polls by lamenting the moral decline of today's youth—an age-old custom. We blame poor parenting, the entertainment industry, Bill Clinton, the Internet, and the banishment of religion from classrooms. The concern over cheating has led to several initiatives to combat it— most notably, a national advertising campaign by the Educational Testing Service to promote "honesty and integrity" among students.

I don't hold out much hope for the ETS ads for two reasons. First, the cheating isn't limited to kids. In December, independent investigators accused more than 50 educators in 32 New York City public schools of helping students cheat on standardized tests. And New York was only the latest in a series of similar incidents last year in Texas, Kentucky, Rhode Island, and elsewhere.

Second, I believe that cheating results more from a flawed education system than from any erosion of individual ethics. The pressure from standards-based reform and its emphasis on accountability and high-stakes testing is intense. In many states and districts, low test scores mean kids are held back and denied a high school diploma; teachers and administrators are publicly embarrassed and sometimes denied critical funding; and failing schools face closure or reconstitution.

I don't believe high stakes justify cheating. But given the fundamental unfairness of the system, it's understandable. The tests, which are often biased, seldom align with the curriculum and carry too much weight in student evaluation. More importantly, too many students—especially poor and minority students—are denied an equal, or even adequate, opportunity to learn the material they're being tested on.

But kids from affluent families cheat, too, and that suggests that the reasons for cheating go well beyond high-stakes testing and inequities in the system to the very nature of traditional schooling. Extensive research on cheating in the 1930s concluded that virtually anyone will cheat if the conditions are right. By making schooling a game—a blend of Trivial Pursuit and Truth or Consequences—we've created such conditions. It is a truism that you get what you test, and our irrational reliance on multiple- choice, true-or-false, and fill-in-the-blank exams exerts an enormous negative influence on curriculum and teaching and distorts the purpose of public education. Driven by standardized tests, schools promote memorization over learning, competition over cooperation, and the accumulation of facts over analysis and understanding. It is not what kids learn that matters but how well they do on the tests—which, more often than not, have little to do with learning.

If students need high- stakes standardized tests to motivate them, then the education system has already failed them. They should know—and I believe most do—that the poorly educated don't fare well in this complex information society. They should know—and I believe most do—that the trivia game is not really preparing them to meet the challenges of the future. Even knowing that, they have little choice but to play the game and hope to "win" by graduating, even if they have to cheat to do so. Both the game and the rules of play are so inane that cheating is largely perceived as "no big deal."

It is no coincidence that cheating is not a problem in elementary schools where the game is really about learning—which is as natural as breathing for children and is one of the most exciting and joyous of human pursuits. When kids are truly engaged in the game of learning, they have neither the temptation nor the incentive to cheat.

—Ronald A. Wolk

Vol. 11, Issue 5, Page 6

Published in Print: February 1, 2000, as Quiz Show
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