Great article at New York magazine about cheating on standardized tests. Thanks to Skepchick for the link.
The article opens with a fascinating narrative of massive cheating at Stuyvesant High in New York during the annual Regents' Exams. If you've ever spent time with a product of the public schools in New York State, you've heard ad nauseam about how difficult, impressive and cheatproof those exams are. Apparently not any more.
In the article we hear from students able to text answers to each other during the test; to photograph pages of the test and e-mail them to kids taking the exams the following day; and, even photograph pages out of the Spanish test and e-mail them to translators, who text back complete paragraphs. This is not opportunistic cheating; it's conspiracy.
Why all the cheating? In short, because the tests are too important, and because they test the wrong things. As the article puts it,
"[T]oday's high-school students live in a culture that, perhaps more than ever, fosters cheating, or at least the temptation to cheat. The prime offender, they say, is the increased emphasis on testing. Success in school today depends not just on the SAT, but on a raft of federal and state standardized exams, often starting as early as fourth grade and continuing throughout high school... Carol Dweck is a Stanford psychology professor. Her research shows that when people focus on a score rather than on improvement, they develop a fixed idea of their intellectual abilities. They come to see school not as a place to grow and learn, but as a place to demonstrate their intelligence by means of a number. To a student with that mind-set, the importance of doing well, and the temptation to cheat, increases. In 2010, Eric Anderman found that even the most impulsive cheaters cheated less often when they believed the point of the test was to help them master the material, not just get a score."
There's been a lot of discussion about whether standardized tests are fair to disadvantaged students, about the implicit dangers of teaching to the test, and about the skewing of curricula to focus on tests that determine a school's funding. These are all very real problems, but they share an assumption that we're at least trying to test the right things.
What if the whole idea of standardized testing is flawed? What if the problem is not merely that tests are being used in unintended and unsupported ways -- to plan curricula, to evaluate teachers -- but that the tests themselves supplant legitimate educational goals for students and for schools?
Remember that this is a respected high school, and the other cheating scandal recently in the news was at Harvard. These are not marginal students trying to make the cut.
"But why do bright kids -- Stuyvesant and Harvard students -- cheat? Aren't they smart enough to get ahead honestly? One might think so, but the pressure to succeed, or the perception of it anyway, is often only greater for such students. Students who attend such schools often feel they not only have to live up to the reputation of the institution and the expectations that it brings, but that they have to compete, many of them for the first time, with a school full of kids as smart, or smarter, than they are.... The work can be so demanding at top schools that students sometimes justify cheating as an act of survival, or rebellion even."
Standardized testing is having deleterious, even disastrous, effect in schools like mine, which are struggling to catch up to NCLB. If the tests are equally problematic at great schools, then maybe it's time for repeal?