Standardized Tests: Why We Cheat

I don't pretend to have the answer to the age-old question of why people cheat, but in light of the recent news coming from the Emory University campus, located just a few miles from my university, I'd like to at least weigh in. For about a decade a few individuals who were responsible for collecting and reporting admissions data at Emory intentionally lied about things like SAT scores and class rank.

These folks didn’t tell crazy lies; instead, they modestly inflated the numbers so that no one would be the wiser. U.S. News and World Report has apparently indicated Emory’s ranking would not even have changed if accurate data had been used, possibly the most interesting part of the whole story.

Emory is a terrific institution and President Jim Wagner, whom I know reasonably well, is not only a great president, but also a good person—thoughtful, ethical and kind—and he has not been implicated at all in these misrepresentations. The news organizations will kick Emory around for a week or so and then move on to something else. It’s certainly a sad day for this great university, but it will recover quickly, and it has done the right thing by coming forward.

But back to my central question. Why in the world would highly respected and well-trained professionals do something like this? Just a couple years ago, Atlantans asked themselves the same question about the “cheating scandal” in the Atlanta Public Schools (APS) that cost the Superintendent, as well as hundreds of others in the system, their jobs. I know the Superintendent well, along with many other administrators who were also forced out. The ones I knew best are all good people.

I still do not believe there was an organized, system-wide conspiracy that directed employees to cheat on statewide tests. I have seen no evidence of that, even three years later. Some teachers were just plain cheating. Some principals did the same. There were examples of absolutely outrageous behavior that deserved the harshest punishment. The behavior of many others who have been accused, though, fell short of what I would label cheating.

Those details aside, what I believe did happen was that a lot of people, including leadership, became focused on reaching a set of numbers that in the end have far less meaning than we ascribe to them. Rewards were based on achieving those numbers, and severe federal and state punishments descended upon APS for failing to hit those numbers. When so much is at stake and the wrong things are being measured, even good people will begin to bend the truth.

Misaligned incentives can bring down any institution. Consider all the criminal activity that’s occurred in the financial industry over the last decade. It’s easy to say that all these folks were just crooks, but I think the bigger problem lies with the system. And this is harder to tackle.

An industry that used to reward people for long-term results benefiting many people has morphed to one where whoever makes the biggest, fastest buck for a few privileged individuals gets rewarded to an obscene degree. And when the bubble collapsed, those folks all kept their money and stayed out of jail.

So back to Emory and the handful of other schools in the last few years where cheating on test scores has been discovered. What’s at stake here and what is being measured? My institution, Oglethorpe University, is not jockeying for a top twenty ranking position, and we are not consumed with the whole ranking game. We do end up in most books or ranking systems that list the country’s best colleges and universities and that’s always a nice thing. But whether we are 157 or 196 really means little to us or our students. Instead, we are concerned every day with providing the most rigorous, relevant, and affordable education we can.

Could what happened at Emory happen at Oglethorpe? I’d like to think not because I know the people here who are responsible for reporting this same data, but no one should ever be so smug.  Would it have benefited us as an institution to add forty points to our median SAT scores? I guess so, but only in a very small way. It looks like it didn’t help Emory all that much either. Would it have made the individuals responsible for recruiting students look better? For sure. Would it have made me as president look better? The answer there must be yes, as well.

In the end, institutions are just people working within a culture. People will make bad decisions from time to time. It is the responsibility of the culture of the institution to encourage and reward ethical decision-making based on things that really matter. When the culture and the system fail to prevent individual excesses, self-correction is the only alternative.
That’s what Emory is doing now. I hope someday the system in which higher education rankings are tallied, which rewards numbers over learning outcomes, will change for the better. I am not holding my breath.

This story originally appeared in Huffington, in the iTunes App store.