What is the real point of today’s New York Times story on cheating? Testing is bad. When test results matter, some percentage of educators (the story suggests perhaps 1% to 4%) will cheat to get them. Testing “ends up pushing more and more of them over the line,” says Robert Schaeffer, spokesperson for the anti-testing organization FairTest, which journalists always turn to for the obligatory “testing is bad” quote. The only counter note in the story is an obligatory “to be sure” paragraph, which notes that “Others say that every profession has some bad apples, and that high-stakes testing is not to blame.”
When students cheat, we don’t say that testing is to blame. When Wall Streeters cheat investors by selling them securities designed to fail, we don’t say that the securities trade creates incentives that cause otherwise good and honest people to abandon moral principles. When construction companies bribe inspectors to look the other way on code violations, we don’t blame strict enforcement.
The New York Times story sensationalizes the consequences of low performance. It says one motivating factor is that, under the No Child Left Behind law, low-performing schools could be closed or taken over by the state and teachers could lose their jobs. It is true that the law suggests such interventions after schools have been on a needs-improvement list for six years. But that has hardly ever occurred. School districts can choose to deal with such schools conventionally: changing the curriculum, assigning a new principal, giving teachers more training. Not surprisingly, this is the route that school districts choose overwhelmingly.
Cheating is nothing new, and examples of it always get the attention of journalists. I remember discovering and writing about a California elementary school principal who changed answer sheets to make her school better in 1983, and I’ve covered other scandals since. But there are far more important topics for journalists to be exploring: What would tests that fairly measure teachers’ performance look like? What would tests look like that are aligned with good standards? Shouldn’t good, solid teaching of the most important concepts and skills be reflected in test scores? Do teachers have all of the resources they need to meet their students’ needs?
My take away from the article? Between 96% and 99% of teachers do not cheat. I would guess that that’s a higher honesty percentage than would be found in other, more mercantile fields.