To Catch a Cheat

by Robert Pondiscio
February 17th, 2010

Here’s something I didn’t know: the same scanners that score standardized tests can be used to count the erasures in which answers are changed from wrong to right.  Too many changes and a school or teacher can come under suspicion of cheating.  That’s the case in Georgia, where nearly 200 schools are being investigated following a study by the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, the New York Times reports.

The study determined the average number of wrong-to-right erasures statewide for each grade and subject, and flagged any classroom with an unusually high number. For example, in fourth-grade math, students on average changed 1.8 answers from wrong to right, while one classroom that was flagged as suspicious had more than 6 such changes per student. Four percent of schools were placed in the “severe concern” category, which meant that 25 percent or more of a school’s classes were flagged. Six percent were in the “moderate concern” category, which meant that 11 percent to 25 percent of its classes were flagged, and 10 percent raised “minimal concern,” meaning 6 percent to 10 percent of its classes were flagged.

At 27 schools, 21 of which were in the Atlanta district, more than half the classes were flagged, and at four Atlanta schools more than 80 percent of the classes were flagged, the Times reports.

For a fascinating read, go to Schneier on Security, a blog on computer security issues, where commenters are picking apart the Georgia investigation.  “What study has been done showing that the percentage of answers changed from wrong to right is a good indicator of cheating?” one asks. 

I’m HIGHLY skeptical of the ability of scanner to determine whether or not an answer was changed. If you look at the numbers in the report closely, you’ll see that according to the scanner almost all changes were wrong to right; there were very few wrong to wrong answers recorded. That alone strikes me as wildly improbable. One big flaw of this study is that there is no evidence that took a random sample of the recorded changes and *visually inspected* those documents to determine if what the scanner was recording was in fact accurate.  Don’t misunderstand. I am sure there are teachers who cheat. I’m just skeptical that this study is anything other than a witch hunt.

Other commenters suggest it would be child’s play to defeat scanning for erasures:  simply fill in all the answers and erase the wrong ones. 

…a smart teacher would also create erasures on wrong answers that they haven’t changed to defeat the wrong->right/right->wrong statistic. Could the analyst infer that the teacher was cheating just because an increase in erasures where there is no discernable bias in the erasures themselves?  This is quickly becoming a counter-intelligence exercise.

The best comment comes from someone outside education–and the U.S.  “Can someone please explain this topic to us non-Americans? I don’t understand what this is about,” he writes. ”Back when I was in school the students cheated, not teachers. Why would they do that? Makes no sense.”

Random testing, anyone?


  1. Diane Ravitch is right (again). Gaming the system has already become the albatross of student testing. Linking student tests scores to teachers for merit pay or anything high-stakes will have to be policed at every turn. If it isn’t, cheating will simply become a way of life with many in our schools.

    And many of these same people are the ones we’re entrusting with the development of student morality? What’s wrong with that picture?

    Comment by Paul Hoss — February 17, 2010 @ 10:15 am

  2. Maybe it’s time to computerize the state standardized exams and outsource the administration to companies like Prometric. The teachers should not have access to student answer sheets because the temptation to cheat on high-stakes testing is simply too great for a significant minority.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — February 17, 2010 @ 1:53 pm

  3. I have proctored test for students at schools with high minority populations and I do know for a fact that African American students appear to erase frequently doing testing–far more than the 1.8 erasures that the state say is normal. I have heard stories of teachers who walk by the desks of testing students and point to the right answer–I’ve never witnessed it myself. But if the investigation finds that teachers point to answers or take the time to take the tests and then correct wrong answers on student answer sheets then they should be FIRED!

    Comment by blue_moon916 — February 18, 2010 @ 11:37 pm

  4. I’m suprised that other (2 you know who you are) large metro Atlanta school systems didn’t have a single school sited. Not discrediting the findings but if the truth is going to be told tell all of the truth and not just target the system that stood up to sonny!!

    Comment by Concerned — February 19, 2010 @ 12:46 pm

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