The New Crisis In Education: Who Is Cheating Whom?
Svi Shapiro is director of the Ph.D. program in education and cultural studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and has recently edited Strangers in the Land: Pedagogy, Modernity, and Jewish Identity (Peter Lang, 2000).
Recent evidence on the extent of cheating among students in public schools provides chilling testimony to the current moral climate of education in the United States. A recent survey by the Josephson Institute of Ethics of nearly 21,000 middle and high-school students found that 70 percent of high school students admitted to cheating at least once on an exam in the previous twelve months; 45 percent of these students agreed with the statement, "A person has to lie or cheat in order to succeed." Over a third of the students questioned would be willing to cheat if it would help them get into college. In another survey of high school students (the twenty-ninth "Who's Who Among American High School Students"), 80 percent of students admitted to cheating in order to get to the top of their class. More than half said that they didn't view cheating as a big deal.
Such information hardly comes as a surprise to those of us who have been studying and struggling with the effects of the testing mania that has been sweeping the country during the past ten years. Indeed it seems to be the inevitable consequence of the "high stakes" testing in which more and more of a student's life--whether he or she completes courses, is promoted, graduates, gets into college--comes to depend on the results of a standardized test.
In the context of this increasingly dog-eat-dog world of public education, the incidence of professional employees cheating has also increased. In the past two years schools in New York, Texas, Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Kentucky, and Maryland have investigated reports of improper or illegal attempts by teachers, principals and other administrators to raise test scores. In Texas a deputy superintendent was indicted on sixteen counts of criminal tampering after central administrators and principals boosted scores by changing the identification numbers of students whose failing grades they did not want counted. In New York City cheating was so pervasive that it led to the resignation of a school superintendent.
Why are adults cheating? High stakes testing means that poor test scores put teachers' and administrators' jobs on the line. Employment, salary increases, and promotions are more and more dependent on demonstrating rising scores. The one-size-fits-all approach to testing ignores the way that income and economic circumstance interact with achievement; it means that those who work in low-income schools are at an enormous disadvantage in producing the kinds of test results that can secure their jobs.
While the advocates of testing see it as the means to improve the quality of education in this country, this cheating epidemic reveals something quite different. Far from increasing the depth and extent of what students know or understand, the emphasis on tests produces a far more instrumental and manipulative view of education among both students and educators. For students, educational chatter about knowledge and understanding is just "sweet talk," little related to the daily grind of schooling and the preoccupation with winning, losing, and getting ahead. Education becomes increasingly a high stakes game in which success is defined almost entirely by one's ability to test well through whatever means necessary. For educators, the extraordinary extent and pervasiveness of standardized tests in American schools puts a choke hold on all other educational goals and purposes. In this environment education becomes the intellectually thin process of memorization and regurgitation of predigested information. Classroom instruction is more and more given over to "test prep." In this context schools offer little that can be taken as a source of personal meaning, as a stimulus to critical thought, or as the catalyst for imaginative interpretation of human experience. …