Miriam K Freedman: What Does Cheating Really Mean?


I’ve read with horror –as many of us have– story after story about the cheating mess on tests in Atlanta, focusing on 2009 state tests, and in other cities and states. OMG. What are we doing here?

Miriam K. Freedman

Miriam K. Freedman

But then I wonder, what is ‘cheating?’ What does that word actually mean? As I see it, it’s a way of pretending that a reported score is valid and actually tells us how the student performed and what that student actually knows. Apparently, these cheating scandals show that scores were tampered with in various ways and were not valid. Reported scores were too high for the actual performance by students. Tragic.

And to this, I would add my concerns about state and testing policies that more generally impede students and teachers, parents and citizens from knowing what students actually know and can do. Some of these policies include targeted ‘teaching to the test’ without teaching to the standards that we hold valuable for students to learn. When ‘teaching to the test’ actually measures the width, breadth, and richness of standards, it’s a plus. When it does not, then it’s a perhaps a form of ‘cheating.’

In addition, some policies allow students, especially students with disabilities and English language learners, to take tests that may not be valid from the get go. That is, tests that have been modified in significant ways and no longer measure what they purport to measure. Such as providing a calculator for a student on a math computation test. Such as reading a reading test to a student. Such as giving extended time on a test that measures results under time pressure. Yet, score reports on these modified tests are issued and claim to show valid results. And, I’m sure there are other policies that allow for this type of ‘cheating,’ so results are not illustrative of student performance and achievement.

In these situations, we can’t blame teachers or students or any of the players on the ground. These are policies and mindsets are developed at the top and create tremendous pressures on educators and students. Examples?

Besides the widespread concerns raised about teaching to tests themselves, as discussed above, how about the fact that the SAT and ACT now allow extended time on those critical tests for some students without letting anyone know that the tests were modified? Of note, this policy, dating back to 2003, was instituted in response to a threatened lawsuit. No law or court decision mandated it. See my story ‘Disabling the SAT,’ and the policy at http://www.collegeboard.com/ssd/student/index.html#apply..

How about reading a reading test to a student who can’t read or giving a calculator to a student who can’t add and subtract–and then reporting the tests as if they are valid. See, e.g., Massachusetts policy.

How about California’s reported scores going up, in part because many students with disabilities take the California Modified Assessment—easier to pass—instead of the standard California Standardized Assessment. In this way, 185,000 students were excluded, thus raising the reported state scores, and showing California gains that exceed reality.

Aren’t all of the above, too, a form of ‘cheating’? Certainly these policies cheat students from knowing what they can and cannot do. And they cheat adults in students’ lives—parents, teachers, administrators, taxpayers—from having a clear understanding of student achievement. Can this issue be related to the high number of students who graduate from our nation’s high schools, having passed tests and courses, enroll in colleges where they need to take remedial courses, only to drop out of college altogether? What do we actually mean by ‘cheating?’ Who is cheating whom? Certainly questions worth pondering as we fret about ‘cheating scandals’ and the achievement levels of our students.

A version of this post originally appeared at Silicon Valley Education Foundation’s Thoughts on Public Education site.

Miriam Kurtzig Freedman is a lawyer, speaker, consultant, and author, and an expert in public education law. For more than 30 years, Miriam has worked with educators, parents, policy makers, and citizens to deal with the legal requirements which impact schools. Miriam translates complex legalese into plain English, and focuses on good preventive practices. For more information, visit her website, www.schoollawpro.com.

Matthew Tabor

Matthew Tabor

Matthew is a prolific, independent voice in the national education debate. He is a tireless advocate for high academic standards from pre-K through graduate school, fiscal sense and personal responsibility. He values parents’ and families’ rights and believes in accountability for teachers, administrators, politicians and all taxpayer-funded education entities. With a unique background that includes work in higher education, executive recruiting, professional sport and government, Matthew has consulted on new media and communication strategies for a broad range of clients. He writes the blog “Education for the Aughts” at www.matthewktabor.com , has contributed to National Journal’s ‘Expert’ blog for Education , and interacts with the education community on Twitter and Google+.