Monday, November 12, 2012


We have seen much in the media in recent years about cheating scandals conducted by both students and educators.  Perhaps a 24-hour news cycle and its pressure to attract an audience with sensational stories is behind a perceived increase in such stories.  On the other hand, perhaps some changes in the world of education are contributing. 

In the last couple decades we have seen an expansion of the testing culture.  More and more kids are taking AP classes and exams, needing top scores to get into the college of their choice.  The SAT test has been revamped and both the ACT and SAT tests are perceived to be a larger and larger part of the college admissions process. 

Colleges and universities have used marketing to increase their applications without doing anything to expand their incoming classes, thereby lowering the percentage of students admitted and increasing their supposed prestige, exclusivity and status. 

We have told our high-performing students that they have to be number one to be successful, all the while knowing everyone cannot be number one.  We have put them under amazing pressure.

And with No Child Left Behind we have seen the testing culture expand into the lives of all students from early in grade school to high school, for students of all abilities.  As we have tied school funding and teacher evaluation to the test scores, we have put awesome pressure on all our students.

We have done the same to teachers.  As strictly limited, objective measures are used in teacher evaluations, teachers have done what they can to protect their livelihood.  Some might say that teachers simply have to teach their students more effectively, thereby helping them achieve higher test scores.  But teachers certainly don’t choose their careers so they can teach to a test.  As educators, they realize that there’s so much more to an education and to their students’ development than test performance.  Tests can only be one, limited, imperfect measure.

I certainly don’t support or encourage cheating.  It is simply wrong.  But imagine if your career is at stake.  Consider feeling as though anything short of admission to Harvard or Stanford was failure.  Consider believing that nothing short of fives on all 12 of your AP exams was failure.  Consider if your ability to put food on the table for your family were at stake as your students took a single exam. 

We need a more humane approach to student achievement.  We need a broader, more thoughtful approach to teacher evaluations.

I explain to my students that a test is a snapshot.  Nobody looks great in every picture.  No student is always at their best.  They will not, must not be judged by a single performance.  A teenager comes to school as a product of their family, community and experience.  Furthermore, teens are emotional roller coasters; we never know what we are going to get.  Their mother is running late, their clothes don’t feel right, they don’t like the way their boyfriend looked at them, they woke up late, they didn’t have a good breakfast or sleep well, it’s raining, …and all these things can impact their readiness and confidence when taking a test.  And then we want to judge them and the teachers based on this very singular snapshot?

So when the stakes are too high, whether it is Enron, Peter Stuyvesant High School, Harvard University or Atlanta Public Schools, cheating starts to looks like a viable option.  We must bring back some common sense, some reason, and some balance to the process and to raising our children.

Here’s some compelling reading on the subject:

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