For Administrators

Teacher Cheating on Standardized Tests

By The Room 241 Team July 20, 2011

Teacher cheating makes headlines because it gives the impression that the educators we trust to help our children learn are cutting corners to serve their own self-interest.

The temptation for teachers to cheat by helping their students get better scores on standardized tests is not a new phenomenon. An article at Pro Publica, the public interest journalism website, chronicles a list of notorious teacher-cheating scandals going to back to late 1980s. In one of the most well-known recent cases, teachers at an Atlanta, Georgia, school district were said to hold “erasure parties” where they routinely erased wrong answers on students’ score sheets and penciled in correct ones.

Some teachers argue that holding them accountable for their students’ scores on standardized tests is an undue burden because a child’s achievement reflects a broad range of forces that are beyond teachers’ ability to influence, much less control. Furthermore, many critics say the push for more standardized testing gives teachers an incentive to break the rules and help their students on tests.

What about testing English Language Learners?

Schoolchildren with a poor command of the English language present a particular dilemma for educators. Many of them might be intelligent enough to excel on standardized tests but cannot always translate the meaning of test questions.

Concordia University-Portland Professor Niels de Jong summarizes the issues with English Language Learners:

Teachers are often in a dilemma whether or not to provide assistance to English Language Learners (ELL) on state or large-scale assessments. According to state guidelines, unless test taking language accommodations have been put in place, this would be considered “teacher cheating” with serious consequences.

On the one hand, teachers are frequently faced with the problem that ELL students do not understand the questions on the test because of limited English proficiency, even though they may know the academic content that is asked for. On the other hand, there is also intense pressure from school administrators to “meet the numbers.” How can teachers deal with this predicament? Will it be a strict implementation of the assessment rules to ensure test validity, or do teachers assist English Language Learners in a covert way so that they can succeed?

There is obviously no clear solution to this problem. If a teacher gets caught “cheating,” the test will be invalid and needs to be retaken, and the teacher may even lose his or her job. Conversely, if a teacher consistently has low student classroom scores, termination of employment may be possible.

One more relevant solution may be to teach students meta-cognitive test taking strategies. Ultimately, this problem will only be solved by creating relevant legislation or school policies that include more appropriate accommodations for language support for English Language Learners during standardized testing.

What to do about teacher cheating

Any activity governed by rules will have people tempted to skirt them. The key to avoiding teacher-cheating scandals is for all the parties to the education process to have a clear-eyed view of the consequences of breaking the rules.

  • Administrators: It’s incumbent on school principals and staff to run a tight ship with a zero-tolerance policy for cheating. After all, the former superintendent of the Atlanta school district was indicted on conspiracy charges. Cheating is a breach of trust that can get people fired, land them in court and perhaps even expose them to criminal prosecution.
  • Teachers: The temptation to take shortcuts hits home in the classroom, where test scores can make or break a career. Teachers need to make sure they understand not only the consequences cheating their students out of a good education, but also the risk they confront if they get caught.
  • Parents: Moms and dads need to keep an eye out for “remarkable” improvements in test scores at their children’s schools. While these gains often reflect genuine improvements in a school’s learning process, they also can be a clue that something is amiss.
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