Friday, May 20, 2011

Cheaters Cheaters...Everywhere?

When there is a reason to cheat someone will cheat.  Not everyone will cheat.  But someone will.  It doesn’t make it right to cheat, it doesn’t make it justifiable or acceptable.  It does make it expected.  Athletes cheat in sports, people cheat on their taxes, people in relationships cheat on each other, students cheat on tests.  I attended what many consider to be the best public high school in the country, full of the brightest students, home of incredibly high standardized test scores and people cheated there.  I went to a university known for its strong academics and stronger honor code and people cheated there.  People breaking the rules is a fact of life.  That’s why we have a judicial system, drug testing and numerous oversight and regulatory bodies.
Bill Turque’s article from a few days ago announced that three DC Public Schools classrooms’ test scores will be invalidated due to cheating.  The article itself provides a good rundown of the facts but the response will inevitably consider a small group of cheaters to be a referendum on policies put in place to turn DC schools into something other than the worst in the country.  This is not what the takeaway should be.

The USA Today story about erasure analysis in DC brought the story to the national level.  Please note that Turque’s most recent article is about last year’s test scores, whereas USA Today was in fact rehashing findings that were reported previously.  USA Today brought up good points about the statistical improbability of some of the findings at some DC schools.  These improbabilities indicated that further investigation should take place, although they are not considered proof of cheating.  And investigations did take place.  Apparently a few people got fired because of these investigations.

Where the USA Today story steps over the line with paragraphs like the following:
Noyes is one of 103 public schools here that have had erasure rates that surpassed D.C. averages at least once since 2008. That's more than half of D.C. schools.
These two sentences, at first glance, seem pretty bad.  Half of schools have irregular erasure rates that could be indicative of cheating?  Well, yeah.  More than half the schools had higher than average erasure rates.  A little less than half had lower than average erasure rates.  Unless I'm missing something that sounds pretty close to the definition of the word average.  It is statements like these, which are essentially meaningless, that push the message that there is an epidemic of cheating that undermines all test scores, all assessment measures, all efforts to increase accountability. 

I’m insulted by the idea that increasing pressure forces people to cheat.  Somehow creating a system of accountability, a system of transparency, where people can see the results of your work, turns people into cheaters.  An adult cheating in an institution of learning is one of the worst kinds of cheating possible, and those who cheat should be punished.  People have free will, they can make their own decisions and blaming a standardized test for morally questionable behavior infantilizes the people we entrust our kids to every day.

But the true witch hunt is not in pursuit of the people making the decisions to cheat but the higher ups who believe standardized tests do have a role, serious accountability and evaluation is important.  On the one hand there is probably a valid argument to be made about creating a culture in which widespread cheating takes place.  But it could also be said that introducing change to a bad culture would lead to some desperate behavior no matter what.   And there is no indication of how widespread any cheating is or how the scope of cheating compares to other districts, urban and suburban, high achieving and low achieving.

When we look at the actions taken by the decision makers it doesn’t look like the leadership in DC have taken this issue lightly.  A huge amount of effort goes into training about and monitoring testing compliance.  And within Turque’s article it is clear that there is substantial self reporting of any violations, intentional or not.  The only reason there was a USA Today article is because DC Public Schools hired a third party firm to investigate, likely at great expense.  Kaya Henderson should be applauded for taking it a step further and asking the DC Inspector General to investigate further.

You see, for people who are invested in making education improvements based at least in part on rising test scores, the credibility of those scores is incredibly important.  In terms of incentives it is the very people who will be accused of covering up something sinister, or even worse setting up something sinister, who have the biggest incentive to have clean, credible tests.  The chances of getting caught systematically cheating is so high that it would be a terrible decision to make even if the decision was based solely on selfish reasoning.  And based on what everyone thinks of the education reform radicals, both positive and negative, I don’t think anyone believes the front runners of the movement are desperate or dumb.  Some say cold and calculating but not many say desperate and dumb.

The fact is most people are playing by the rules.  And in at least three instances where people weren’t playing by the rules action was taken.  Proving cheating is very difficult and making loose accusations is not something any school district would do.  There will always be some uncertainty involved with erasure analyses, cheating accusations, disciplinary action related to test security infractions.  It doesn’t undermine the entire system unless we let it.  It is just a fact of life that districts must acknowledge and work to minimize.  From my viewpoint it looks like that is exactly what DC is doing.  In a system in which so much has been broken for so long it is naïve to expect perfection but a good faith effort to clean things up is a strong start.

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