do cheaters *always* win?

[N.B.: I originally published this post on 2012.09.03. I revised it for clarity and to replace broken links. Although there are new developments on this topic, this post will not address them; however, I may address them in future posts.]

Those who know me personally know that I’m very passionate about education; they know I hate the lowered standards and bastardized curricula resulting from the misguided No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law that caused many states to transform curricula into glorified test-prep routines (“teaching to the test”). Not surprisingly, such resulted in widespread cheating by students – and even school districts – due to pressure to “improve” standardized test scores. I’ll expound on these issues shortly – but I wanted to look at another issue. Why is scholastic cheating so widespread? Is its prevalence due to these misguided reform efforts or did such efforts simply expose something that occurs with regularity? Also, are there other factors at play (such as students’ cognitive abilities and technological advances)? Finally, do cheaters always win? Do they end up getting ahead, diminishing the value of education among those who honestly earn good grades/graduate high school/attain college degrees? Let’s find out, shall we?

I. “Standardized” Cheating
A. The Atlanta Cheating Scandal
B. The El Paso, Texas Cheating Scandal
C. The Lockland, Ohio Cheating Scandal
D. The California Cheating Scandal
II. “Specialized” Cheating
A. The Styuvesant High School Cheating Scandal
B. The Great Neck High School Cheating Scandal
III. Underlying Causes of Cheating and Scholastic Achievement
A. The Audacity of Hope?
B. The Role of Intelligence and Personality Traits
C. Do Cheaters Always Win?

I. “Standardized” Cheating

One of NCLB’s main goals was to make sure that all primary and secondary school students became – and remained – proficient in reading and math. To this end, the federal government developed guidelines to make sure states complied with the new standards. Student performance (and teacher/school efficacy) were now assessed through reformed standardized tests; while standardized testing has always been a part of primary and secondary schooling, the NCLB reforms placed much more emphasis on them overall. Poor performance meant disciplinary action against teachers (i.e. being fired or reassigned); also, schools either split into “smaller” schools or closed altogether. Furthermore, other reforms such as the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top program placed more pressure on states to enact reforms meeting federal standards. Among the reforms – narrowing the so-called “achievement gap” (that is, improving Black, Hispanic, and Native American academic performance such that it is on par with Whites).

These efforts seem noble, no? What could these possibly have to do with cheating?

The answer – a lot.

Exhibit A: the Atlanta cheating scandal. In what is likely one of the biggest cheating scandals in U.S. history, about 178 teachers and administrators (including principals) colluded to inflate student test scores; worse still, they came after anyone who tried to get in their way. As a result, several teachers either had their certifications suspended or revoked and now could lose bonuses if caught cheating; also, the Atlanta Public Schools (APS) system was in danger of losing accreditation, but the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) recently upgraded APS’ status from probation to “accredited with advisement” – one step below full accreditation. Aside from the fallout, there are other factors that make this case intriguing:

  • The number of teachers, staff, and school districts involved
  • The number of schools involved (44)
  • The oppression whistle-blowers faced
  • The tarnished reputation of Atlanta’s school system as a model for inner-city education reform and improvement

The Atlanta scandal is the greatest example of administrative cheating, which the article suggests is very prevalent:

The Atlanta cheating scandal also offers the first most comprehensive view yet into a growing number of teacher-cheating allegations across the US, reports of which reached a rate of two to three a week in June [2011], says Robert Schaeffer, a spokesman for the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, which advocates against high-stakes testing.

(Emphasis mine.)

What this means is that we can’t look at cheating as though it’s just the students; in some cases, the students aren’t cheating at all! What’s really sad about this is the implication that such teachers/administrators had no faith in their students’ ability to pass the exams – even with generally lower standards! But let’s be honest – what do you expect when you attach jobs and dollars to the results of these tests? Paper improvements aren’t tantamount to real improvements – and as you’ll see, the Atlanta case is neither novel nor exclusive to Atlanta and suggests that education systems in the U.S. are actually regressing.

Exhibit B: the El Paso, Texas cheating scandal. Like the Atlanta cheating scandal, this one involved administrative cheating; interestingly, it wasn’t the only kind of cheating taking place! The disgraced former superintendent of the El Paso Independent School District (EPISD), Lorenzo Garcia, fudged numbers and even student demographics to inflate test scores and academic performance data (allowing him to “secure” NCLB federal funds). Also, he attempted to defraud EPISD by inflating the value of a contract let to a mistress, who happens to own a company that creates so-called “data-driven” materials to help students improve their standardized math scores! (See how crazy the collusion is here?) Let’s look closely at what else makes this case so egregious:

  • Preventing some students (particularly Mexican transferees) from enrolling in the 10th grade – even if they had the credits (some credits were simply erased) – so they wouldn’t take the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) exam, a standardized test given to 10th graders.
  • As if that weren’t bad enough, Garcia apparently colluded with six others (presumably administrators but unnamed as yet) to “do anything to improve scores,” including changing passing grades to failing grades (and vice-versa) to change the demographics of TAKS test-takers.
  • In some cases, potentially “at-risk” students were forced to drop out.

Just like in Atlanta, students got screwed by desperate cats feigning improvement for NCLB dollars. The scandal caused Texas officials to reform their standardized testing and accountability system; they developed a new set of standardized tests called the State of Texas Assessments on Academic Readiness (STAAR), which will replace the TAKS. The STARR will also be geared toward classroom content as opposed to grade level:

Because our new STAAR program features tests that are tied to high school courses rather than grade levels, this sort of data manipulation shouldn’t occur in the future,” [Debbie] Ratcliffe said. “As we build our new STAAR-based accountability system, we will do our best to make sure it accurately reflects the work of our students and schools.

(Emphasis mine; N.B.: Source article, from the El Paso Times, is no longer available and no alternate sources for this story exist.)

Methinks that’s a start, but even “tests tied to high-school courses” are subject to number-fudging; it’s a matter of proper oversight and high standards – not just for students, but for teachers and especially administrators. Let’s continue.

Exhibit C: the Lockland, Ohio cheating scandal. The Lockland school district is smaller than those of Atlanta (~55,000) and El Paso (~64,000) – indeed, there are only 632 students in it. However, similar number-fudging shenanigans occurred here; officials omitted test results of 36 students to inflate performance numbers by fudging attendance figures to allow omission of “unfavorable” test results. Also, the problem isn’t local to Lockland – similar scandals in Columbus and Toledo prompted an ongoing statewide audit of scholastic performance and attendance data. Also under investigation as part of the audit – more allegations of cheating (by students and staff alike) on standardized tests. Why am I not surprised?

Exhibit D: the California cheating scandal. Unlike the preceding three cases, this one is mostly a case of student cheating (as opposed to administrative cheating) – though one could argue the exam proctors didn’t properly secure testing environs or adequately supervise testees. This scandal also highlights technological advances in cheating, such as cell pix and social media. The alleged cheating, however, spells trouble for the California schools affected; test scores face invalidation and the affected schools could lose funding, face sanctions (e.g. revocation of teaching licenses à la Atlanta), or some combination of these. “Hi-tech” cheating, however, isn’t unique to the California case, as you’ll soon see.

So why highlight these particular examples? After all, there are others out there. The point is this: so-called “high-stakes” testing (a prominent emblem of education “reform” post-NCLB) helped encourage this cheating. Also contributing is one of NCLB’s goals – closing the so-called achievement gap; as the Atlanta and El Paso cases show, some administrators had no faith in “disadvantaged” students and did not believe they would improve – despite some actually improving! Unfortunately, research on causes of these “achievement gaps” shows ample evidence of biological and genetic factors – implying such gaps will always exist. This may make efforts to close such gaps futile, causing cheating to become the only recourse – hence, no real improvement! I’ll expound on this dilemma later in this piece; next I discuss “special” instances of academic cheating not directly attributable to NCLB.

II. “Specialized” Cheating

Administrative cheating designed to dance around NCLB’s yearly progress requirements weren’t the only instances of cheating that rocked the U.S., as the Cali cheating scandal demonstrates. While it is tempting to believe only students of “lesser ability” are more inclined to cheat, the next two cases suggest otherwise.

Exhibit E: the Stuyvesant High School cheating scandal. Stuyvesant is one of NYC’s three “original” Specialized Science High Schools (the other two being Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech; for the record, I’m a Tech alumnus – class of 2003); NYC has nine specialized high schools in total. Stuy is one of the most prestigious high schools in the nation; admission requires a sufficiently high score on the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT). The Stuy scandal is similar to the Cali scandal in that cheaters used cellphones; as many as 100 students exchanged texts and even photos of various Regents exams (70 students will have to retake the exams; some face suspensions). What makes this scandal incredible is that Stuy’s student body is essentially very bright; most of them pass their Regents exams with flying colors. Given that, why cheat? The answer – pressure:

“There is too much weight put on a couple of numbers to determine your worth as a student and a human being,” said Benjamin Koatz of Forest Hills, Queens, who graduated in June and is headed to Brown University. “And the highly competitive nature at Stuyvesant lends a hand in that, but it is really endemic to the system.”

Mr. Koatz said that when a couple of points can make the difference in getting into an Ivy League school, “then there is an incentive there, especially since most of the students come from families where the goal is ‘Ivy League school or bust’; you either go to an Ivy League school or you haven’t lived up to your potential.”

Another article on the scandal suggests a fairly healthy culture of cheating:

Long before authorities busted a nearly 100-student cheating ring last week, students have been raising concerns for years about widespread cheating at the elite Battery Park City school.

Stuyvesant’s high-pressure environment, floods of busywork and lax enforcement during tests have combined to make it both easier and more tempting to cheat, students said.

The pressure at Stuyvesant is uniquely [causing] people to be more prone to cheating,” said Daniel Teehan, 16, a rising senior from Bay Ridge. “For some students, clearly it’s too much. There’s pressure from parents, pressure from teachers, pressure from other people succeeding.”

(Emphasis mine.)

Top schools may indeed exert unique pressures on students that other schools don’t, but methinks there’s more to the cheating than that. To show this, let’s look at another “elite” cheating case.

Exhibit F: the Great Neck cheating scandal. Like Stuyvesant in NYC, Great Neck North High School is a prestigious N.Y.-area high school. Unlike the Stuy scandal, however, this involved cheating on the SAT exam. The students implicated in the scandal hired an impersonator – and paid him as much as $2,500 – to take the SAT for them. The six cheaters and the impersonator were all arrested. However, the scandal doesn’t end there; just two months later, there were 13 more arrests – including cats from other Long Island-area high schools – for similar cheating on the SAT and ACT. Here, the impersonators received payments as high as $3,600 to take tests for others.

Seems scholastic cheating is a lucrative business. :-/

The scandal may not even end there, however, since investigators are looking into at least nine other cheaters! Kathleen Rice, the Nassau County D.A., laments:

“Educating our children means more than teaching them facts and figures. It means teaching them honesty, integrity and a sense of fair play,” Rice said in a news release. “The young men and women arrested today instead chose to scam the system and victimize their own friends and classmates, and for that they find themselves in handcuffs.”

(Emphasis mine.)

Methinks the cats in Atlanta, El Paso, and elsewhere also need a lesson in “honesty, integrity, and a sense of fair play.”

That said, a comment by Great Neck North’s principal suggests that the cheating was a crime of opportunity:

“Very simply, [Educational Testing Service] has made it very easy to cheat, very difficult to get caught, and has failed to include schools in the process…

(Emphasis mine.)

So what can we make of all these scandals? At the very least, their prevalence indicts NCLB as an ineffective education reform tool. Cheating is on the rise, while standards regressed (some “improvement” that is). Worse still, students – even the ones who are honestly doing their best – are getting shafted. Even top schools face widespread cheating!

So what can we do about all this? In fairness, the Obama Administration – and many local districts – are already finding ways to answer that question. For instance, the SAT cheating scandal (Exhibit F) prompted the College Board to check its testing protocols; also, the El Paso scandal resulted in reformed tests and testing protocols. Education Secretary Arne Duncan also (finally) recognized that comprehensive curricula are key to true education reform; many states obtained waivers from NCLB’s stringent requirements on achievement gaps and student proficiency in math and reading:

One of the most important changes as a result of the waivers, Duncan said, will be a renewed focus on subjects such as science, social studies and the arts. In many schools, they received less attention in the push to improve math and reading scores.

(Emphasis mine.)

Catalyzing the motion to waivers is the Obama Administration’s new set of scholastic standards called the Common Core. These standards emphasize critical thinking and collegiate readiness; as such, there is less emphasis (thankfully) on standardized testing as a measure of student and teacher performance. Methinks this is a start; if it means the end of bastardized curricula, I’m all for it. However, the news isn’t all good – Duncan hinted at more cuts to extracurricular activities due to the “economy.” Moreover, even though I advocate higher standards, research suggests such doesn’t necessarily catalyze higher achievement.

As such, I now look into other factors behind cheating and scholastic achievement.

III. Underlying Causes of Cheating and Scholastic Achievement

The preceding articles suggest that the cheating problem is two-fold – there is both a pupil cheating problem and an administrative cheating problem. Pressure (whether through family and peers à la Stuy or through NCLB or Race to the Top guidelines), combined with technological advances, is creating “a culture of cheating” that some say is pushing teachers and administrators “over the edge;” note other examples of cheating scandals in the latter article. Adding to that “culture of cheating” is widespread political and economic corruption (consider the subprime mortgage debacle as a prime example). What’s more, the “reforms” aren’t making much of a dent on U.S. educational achievement. But the real question is, why?

A. The Audacity of Hope?

No, not the book. Rather, results of a research study showing that students with higher hope (as measured through an assessment) were less likely to cheat than those with less hope. While the sample consisted of undergrads (different from the primary and secondary schools and students highlighted in the cheating scandals), cheating at the primary and secondary levels signaled collegiate cheating and is thus still relevant. The study went on to highlight other factors contributing to cheating:

Most prominently, variables significantly related to cheating include test anxiety, impulsivity, intelligence, self-esteem, locus of control, social desirability, and guilt (Alarape & Onakoya, 2003; DePalma et al., 1995; Jackson et al., 2002; Johnson & Gormly, 1972; Kelly & Worell, 1978; Smith et al., 1972; Thorpe et al., 1999)…Caught Cheaters and Never Cheated individuals significantly differed on hopefulness even after controlling for test anxiety, impulsivity, and intelligence. Students describing hopelessness around their ability to be successful in a course appear to be at higher risk for engaging in cheating behaviors…It may be that since individuals who scored highly on the hope measure tend to have more goals and more strategies and motivation to achieve goals, they were not as tempted to cheat because they had prepared better than their peers.

(Emphasis mine.)

The motivations for cheating, as expressed both by students and staff in the cheating scandal literature, are in line with these factors – so let’s dig a lil’ deeper. I underlined intelligence here because, as you will soon see, significant correlations between some cheating factors and intelligence exist. Before I expound on that, a word on some of the other factors. Another research paper sheds some light on the relationship between self-esteem and internal locus of control (LoC for short – strength of belief in being in control of personal outcomes); as it turns out, a significant correlation also exists between these two factors. Persons with higher self-esteem tend to have greater internal LoC than persons with low self-esteem. Further, both self-esteem and internal LoC correlate with stress response (as measured by cortisol levels) and hippocampal volume in the brain; the hippocampus is responsible for memory formation and is key to proper spatial orientation. In the context of cheating, this makes sense; cheating (whether by students or administrators) is a response to scholastic stressors that cats with less hope are more likely to engage in. Unfortunately, sample sizes are very small (16 youth and 23 elderly); in addition, there are other limiting factors in the study – from the authors:

Relatedly, it should be noted that we did not collect IQ data to complement our personality assessment. Although we included cognitive assessments to control for possible signs of cognitive decline with aging (the 3M scores, for example), this is a less than ideal approach that should be revised in future studies.

(Emphasis mine.)

IQ (a.k.a. the intelligence quotient) is a measure of one’s cognitive ability; click here for an introduction. You’ll notice that intelligence is prominent in both of these studies; when we take a closer look at it, things get really interesting.

B. The Role of Intelligence and Personality Traits

The intelligence literature is vast and covers a multitude of topics (some controversial) from differences in cognitive ability between racial/ethnic groups to psychophysiological relationships (e.g. interaction between cognitive abilities and personality traits). Let’s begin with the latter.

As the “hope” research paper suggests, various personality traits contribute to academic cheating; these traits may also explain administrative cheating. A 2010 study appearing in the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Journal of Experimental Psychology revealed the following:

  • Low cognitive ability (i.e. low IQ) significantly predicted academic cheating; in a meta-analysis of 13 studies, the mean effect size was -0.26 of a standard deviation. (In layman terms, lower-IQ students were about 10% more likely to cheat in school than higher-IQ students.)
  • The so-called “Dark Triad” of personality traits (psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism) also predicted cheating; psychopathy was not only the strongest predictor of the three, but it was the only one to stay statistically significant in a multiple regression analysis.
  • Aspects of the “Big Five” (or five-factor model) personality traits – namely, low conscientiousness and low agreeableness, also predicted cheating; however, these lost their statistical significance when regressed with the Dark Triad (i.e. their contributions to cheating weren’t statistically significantly unique).
  • The link between psychopathy and cheating was partly mediated by two factors – unrestrained achievement (i.e. desire to meet goals by any means necessary – including unethical means) and moral inhibition (i.e. resisting the temptation to do wrong due to one’s honesty and integrity). A third factor, fear of punishment, didn’t mediate the psychopathy-cheating link.
  • Demographic differences weren’t significant; however, this could be an artifact of the sample demographics or sample size.

While the paper examined student cheating, I wouldn’t be surprised if similar relationships existed among administrative cheaters.

A more recent study explored the genetic link between personality and IQ by studying a large sample of twins. Their findings:

  • Significant positive correlation between IQ and openness to experience and agreeableness exists.
  • There is a significant negative correlation (albeit much weaker in size) between IQ and neuroticism; neuroticism is the tendency to experience negative states such as anxiety, depression, and emotional instability. This relationship isn’t clear-cut, however, as the correlation between neuroticism and both performance IQ (PIQ) and IQ scores measured by Raven’s Progressive Matrices was insignificant.
  • Shared genetic factors influenced most of the variance in the above relationships.
  • IQ wasn’t correlated with conscientiousness and extraversion.

Further complicating things is the set of autism spectrum conditions (ASC). In a study of children and adolescents with ASC, researchers found that anxiety and cognitive ability (i.e. IQ) moderated risk-taking. Specifically, they found a significant positive relationship between anxiety and risk-taking in autistic subjects but no such relationship in non-autistic subjects. IQ was positively correlated with risk-taking in autistic subjects but negatively correlated in non-autistic subjects. Furthermore, the researchers posit that fear of failure moderated risk-taking in autistic subjects while prospect of reward moderated risk-taking in non-autistic subjects.

In this context, we can view student and administrative cheating as risky activities. Perhaps autism has some explanatory power on the former, especially among higher-IQ pupils; the fear of failure might motivate them to cheat, despite higher intelligence. Among the non-autistic, higher incidence of risk taking in lower-IQ individuals agrees with the general result that lower-IQ cats are more likely to cheat than higher-IQ cats.

A 2006 study (N.B.: full text no longer free) examined the link between autism and the “Big Five” personality traits and found that:

  • Autism correlated negatively with extraversion and conscientiousness, but correlated positively with neuroticism. (The paper cites a source which also found negative correlation between autism and agreeableness); the difference could be an artifact of the sample (in this study, researchers sampled college students only).
  • Individual differences in degree of autism are independent of the “Big Five” personality traits, suggesting that ASC could be a sixth factor in the “Big Five” personality model.

These results further suggest that autism could have explanatory power on student cheating; recall that IQ did not correlate with either extraversion or conscientiousness and its relationship with neuroticism wasn’t clear-cut (indeed, a very recent study shows that, while IQ and neuroticism predicted various health outcomes, they weren’t correlated with each other). If anything, these studies suggest that intelligence and personality traits make independent contributions to student and administrative cheating.

Now let’s look at the relationships between race and cognitive ability. This is important because one of the principal goals of current education reforms is to close achievement gaps. Unfortunately, this is likely unachievable; an exhaustive review of 30 years worth of research on the disparity between average cognitive abilities (mostly measured by IQ) of Blacks, Whites, and East Asians showed that statistically significant measurable differences remained even after controlling for common environmental factors such as socioeconomic status (SES), home/family environment, and scholastic environment. Perhaps more significant is their finding that controlling for SES (that is, examining situations where low-SES persons received the same educational opportunities as higher-SES persons) reduced but did not eliminate the IQ gaps. From the review:

The most widely accepted [hypothesis] is that [Black-White IQ differences] are due to differences in SES. Adjusting for SES, however, only reduces the mean Black–White IQ difference by about one third. Other culture-only hypotheses, such as the effects of segregation, bias in tests, or the consequences of being a minority in a White society are not supported by our review of the evidence.

(Emphasis and terms in brackets mine.)

The review also cites the controversial book The Bell Curve, which gives average IQ levels of various racial/ethnic groups in America as such: Black (85), Hispanic (89), White (103), Asian (106), and Jewish (113). I emphasize average here because individuals of any race/ethnic group can have an IQ score above or below these averages. However, these numbers also mean that the proportion of people scoring above 100 – the expected 50th percentile score on any given IQ test – varies by race/ethnicity. Taken together, the evidence suggests that both environmental and genetic factors contribute to the IQ gaps between racial/ethnic groups. Moreover, the review gives a chart (on p. 18) with the approximate percentage of variation in IQ explained by three factors: biological/genetic, shared environment (i.e. factors causing similarities within families but differences between families), and non-shared environment (i.e. factors causing differences within families; for example, siblings who attend different high schools or different classes in the same school). It shows that environmental factors initially explain roughly 60% of the variance in IQ but explain only 20% of said variance by age 20; however, biological/genetic factors – initially accounting for roughly 40% of the IQ variance – account for roughly 80% of the IQ variance by age 20.

Unfortunately, this means teachers and administrators – and interventions involving them – can only do so much to close achievement gaps. It may also explain why teachers and administrators in districts with a sizable “disadvantaged” student body “cheat” or fudge numbers with some regularity, as shown by the cheating scandals. Once you “fix” the environment such that the playing field is level (i.e. equal access to top-notch schools, teachers, etc.), then variation in student performance (whether in the classroom or on standardized tests) results more from student differences than teacher/school differences. As such, I posit that the insistence on closing achievement gaps enables cheating – and could stigmatize disadvantaged students since such cheating implies they can’t make it otherwise; methinks that’s the last thing one should communicate to these students. Thus, I believe education reform should not focus on achievement gaps between racial/ethnic groups; rather, it should focus on improving overall achievement.

C. Do Cheaters Always Win?

To wrap up this analysis, let’s see if cheaters do win. That is, does cheating and its prevalence (whether academic or administrative) diminish the value of an education for non-cheaters?

A group of researchers studied peer effects in academic cheating – that is, external influences (e.g. other students) that lead one to cheat. Early in the paper, there is a foreboding statement:

[…] if a university degree is a valuable signal in the labor market allowing employers to separate high value employees from low value employees (Spence 1973), cheating diminishes the signal and thus erodes the value of a university degree. If, as a result of the diminished signal, employers pay a smaller wage premium for an employee with a university degree, rational workers would choose to invest less in this form of human capital (Becker 1962). Hence, we might expect higher levels of academic cheating, all else equal, to reduce human capital investment in education.

(Emphasis mine.)

This might explain why experience and credentials seem to matter more in the job market than educational attainment; this sucks for cats who legitimately worked hard for their degrees. Digging deeper into the paper, statistical analyses conducted by the researchers showed:

  • Statistically significant peer effects (both exogenous – i.e. high-school cheaters, and endogenous – i.e. college cheaters) moderated the odds of a given college student cheating.
  • Admission of two or three high-school cheaters to college can influence one college student to cheat.
  • Just one college cheater can influence roughly three other college students to cheat! (The paper calls this the “social multiplier.”)
  • Students in poorer standing (as reflected by their graduation order of merit, or GOM) were more likely to cheat due to peer influences; peer effects influenced cheating in all quartiles except the top quartile.
  • Higher levels of peer reporting of cheating (real or perceived) reduced overall cheating rates.

The researchers, in their conclusion, also state the following:

[…] our results indicate that policies that promote peer enforcement of suspected cheating may help reduce the incidence of cheating on college campuses. Reduced cheating would in turn strengthen the credibility of a university education as a signal in the labor market.

(Emphasis mine.)

Combined with the other research, a student’s peers – along with IQ, personality, and other biological/genetic traits – collectively influence academic cheating! I wouldn’t be surprised if some combination of these also influence administrative cheating. The “peer enforcement” suggestion implies that teachers shouldn’t shoulder the entire burden of catching and reporting cheaters; it’d be in the student body’s best interests to “bang in” cheaters. So long as students sit back and tolerate cheating, however, cheaters (unless they’re caught) get to skate by while the playing field gradually worsens for everyone else.

It’s not all the students’ fault, however. So long as reform efforts continue to focus on standardized testing and achievement gaps, student achievement outcomes won’t improve (due to cheating) – rather, we’ll get a regression to mediocrity (surprise, surprise).

Given all these things, how can we reduce cheating? Well, Mr. Duncan has a plan for that too – namely, a new set of standardized tests tailored to the Common Core that seem to have psychometric properties:

The tests, by SBAC and Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, will both be administered mostly on computers and will feature more open-ended questions than the traditional “fill in the bubble” exams to which students have grown accustomed. But only SBAC is a “computer adaptive test,” which means that it conforms to a student’s performance during testing (if a student does poorly, the questions will get easier).

(Emphasis mine.)

Indeed, if these exams are psychometric, they may help discourage cheating. Psychometric standardized tests not only test students’ current knowledge, but their ability to apply said knowledge to future problems (a useful metric for assessing student readiness for higher-level coursework). That said, I’ll go on the record and state that not everyone is capable of handling college-level work (not just based on the evidence, but also my experience as a peer and professional tutor).

In closing, methinks the first step to reducing cheating is to shift the course of education reform. Deemphasize standardized testing (but do make the tests more psychometric in nature) and racial/ethnic achievement gaps (something beyond any educator’s reach). Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s pledge to diversify curricula and push for new (and possibly psychometric) standardized tests are a start, but as long as “improvement” rests on standardized test scores and narrower “achievement gaps,” the cheating problem will persist.

5 thoughts on “do cheaters *always* win?

  1. Excellent post! This is a great compilation of the various academic cheating scandals that are inevitable result of foolish educational policies like NCLB. I will surely use this as a reference.

    Also, cheating in education is also a consequence of the enormous stakes involved in education today. One has to be pretty tough not to cheat, considering the implication for one’s future. See also here:

    Studies Show More Students Cheat, Even High Achievers –


    1. Thanks JayMan! Unfortunately, you’re right about the high-stakes nature of today’s education. Combined with even higher stakes for attaining employment and the push to get all students to go to college (which may exacerbate the student loan debt problem), we get an increasingly hopeless situation.

      As for the NYT article you found, it’s interesting how they mention this:

      Experts say the reasons are relatively simple: Cheating has become easier and more widely tolerated, and both schools and parents have failed to give students strong, repetitive messages about what is allowed and what is prohibited.

      Strong, repetitive messages? Without strong actions to back up such “messages”, some cats (students and staff alike) may simply tune them out and carry on with “business as usual.” Interestingly, the info in the article – combined with the evidence in my post – suggest the cheating relationship may be non-linear insofar as student ability is concerned; this doesn’t even include the other academic/administrative cheating factors I mentioned! Hence, what I plan to do as a “next step” with all this research (when time allows) is see if I can devise a model for reducing both academic and administrative cheating. A preliminary look at the evidence suggests the model could take the form of an optimization problem. Finding solutions to said problem, however, will be a difficult challenge…


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