Erase to the Top

by Robert Pondiscio
March 28th, 2011

“On the 2009 reading test, for example, seventh-graders in one Noyes classroom averaged 12.7 wrong-to-right erasures per student on answer sheets; the average for seventh-graders in all D.C. schools on that test was less than 1. The odds are better for winning the Powerball grand prize than having that many erasures by chance, according to statisticians consulted by USA TODAY.”

A USA Today investigative piece looks at high erasure rates on standardized tests at Washington, DC’s Crosby S. Noyes Education Campus, which went from a school in need to one of DC’s ‘shining stars.’”  The report notes that three years ago, DC’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education asked test-maker McGraw-Hill to do “erasure analysis” after some schools showed big gains in in proficiency rates on April 2008 tests.  “Among 96 schools flagged for wrong-to-right erasures were eight of the 10 campuses where [DC Superintendent Michelle] Rhee handed out so-called TEAM awards ‘to recognize, reward and retain high-performing educators and support staff,’ as the district’s website says. Noyes was one of these.”

Conflicts of Interest

by Robert Pondiscio
August 3rd, 2010

Which is worse, asks A-Rus at This Week in Education:  cheating or plagiarism?  This after yesterday’s NY Times story on allegedly fungible definitions of plagiarism and an apparent vindication of Atlanta’s schools in the “Erase to the Top” scandal.

Just wondering:  Has the pressure on schools and teachers to measure up fundamentally changed the dynamic of cheating?  In a gentler age, cheating was how you put one over on the teacher.  Now, the teacher theoretically benefits from cheating as much as the student.  Maybe even more.

Does Competition Enhance Performance?

by Robert Pondiscio
June 25th, 2010

Does competition enhance performance?  Or does it simply create more incentive to cheat?  That was precisely the question a pair of Spanish researchers set out to explore in an interesting experiment.  Fifty-five men and women spent a half-hour working on mazes on a computer.  Half the students were paid based on the number of mazes they completed “whereas the half in the ‘highly competitive’ condition were only paid per maze if they were the top performer in their group of six students,” according to the British Psychological Society’s research blog:

“The students in the highly competitive condition narrowed their eyes, rolled up their sleeves, focused their minds and cheated. That’s right, the students playing under the more competitive prize rules didn’t complete any more mazes than students in the control group, they just cheated more.”

The test subjects were able to cheat by switching to easier levels of difficulty or clicking on a button that offered solutions for the mazes (software on the computers monitored what the test subjects were actually doing).  Perhaps the most interesting finding: poor performers cheated the most.

‘It turns out that individuals who are less able to fulfill the assigned task do not only have a higher probability to cheat, they also cheat in more different ways,’ the researchers said. ‘It appears that poor performers either feel entitled to cheat in a system that does not give them any legitimate opportunities to succeed, or they engage in “face saving” activity to avoid embarrassment for their poor performance.”


by Robert Pondiscio
June 11th, 2010

“Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered I’ve seen lots of funny men; Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen” –Woody Guthrie.

In the least surprising education story of the year, the New York Times reports that cheating is increasing as the stakes grow higher on standardized tests.  Cue sounds of earnest clucking and charges of sloppy journalism.   There’s a bigger and better cheating story to be told and it goes far beyond tales of individual or even school-wide mendacity.  Lower cut scores, scoring rubrics that award generous and undeserved partial credit, and dumbed down tests are cheating too.  So is using these debased metrics to create an illusion of proficiency or progress where none exists.  One doesn’t need to be cyncial to wonder if the real story isn’t who is cheating, but rather who isn’t?

Every year — EVERY year — that I taught fifth grade, I had students in my classroom who had tested on grade level the previous year who added and subtracted on their fingers and struggled to retell details from even simple stories.  Was someone cheating?  Maybe.  Was someone cheated?  Definitely.

Cheater Pants!

by Robert Pondiscio
May 14th, 2010

A new study shows that most high school students cheat.  But they have inconsistent notions about what is or is not cheating.    Researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln surveyed 100 members of the junior class of a large midwestern high school, according to Science News.  Nearly nine out of ten said glancing at someone else’s answers during a test was cheating, but 87 percent admitting doing so anyway. Nearly all of them (94 percent) agreed that giving answers to someone during a test cheating, but 74 percent admitted to doing so.

Less than half (47 percent) agreed that providing test questions to a fellow student who had yet to take a test was cheating.   “The results suggest that students’ attitudes are tied to effort. Cheating that still required students to put forth some effort was viewed as less dishonest than cheating that required little effort,” said Kenneth Kiewra, professor of educational psychology at UNL, one of the study’s authors.

Hey, that’s not cheating.  It’s group work!

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?

“Over-Aiding” Students on Exams on the Rise

by Robert Pondiscio
March 20th, 2009

Teachers are becoming bigger cheaters than their students on standardized tests, according to a British study.  Allegations of British invigilators (that’s what they call proctors in the Mother Country) ”over-aiding” pupils is on the rise.

“Teachers’ leaders have warned that their members are under increasing pressure to make sure their pupils do well in tests because of schools’ desire for a good showing in government league tables listing primary school results,” Britain’s Independent newspaper reports. 

I haven’t seen hard data on “over-aiding” in U.S. schools but I suspect it’s not uncommon, especially in struggling schools.  Teachers in my elementary school were ordered by the district to engage in ”active proctoring,” continually moving among students, during state exams.  We were expected not to sit down.  Active proctoring, we were told, had been demonstrated to result in higher test scores. 

I suspect if that’s true it’s because “active proctoring” encourages “over-aiding.”

Making Bad Choices

by Robert Pondiscio
December 2nd, 2008

A colleague of mine, a kindergarten teacher, has an arch and winning way of describing bad or questionable behavior or just plain stupidity by people who should know better.  Using the language and tone of her classroom, she will point out how someone “is making a bad choice.”

It seems lots of people, as Ms. Pearson would say, are making bad choices.  A national survey of nearly 30,000 high school students shows that 30 percent admit to stealing from a store in the past year, while two-thirds have cheated on a test.  Against the available evidence, “93 percent were satisfied with their personal ethics and character,” as Joanne Jacobs notes.

Boston Herald columnist Michael Graham says as Americans, we’re not shocked by the survey results because “it’s impossible to be shocked without first being judgmental. And in contemporary America, the only remaining universal sin is to declare anyone else’s behavior sinful.”

When the bullets fly in Dorchester or the blood spills at Wal-Mart, we crank up the Great American Excuse Machine and let fly: Dorchester is violent because of poverty. Scared Americans trample each other at Wal-Mart because of the terrible “Bush economy.” Our kids cheat because academic standards are too high, etc., etc.

“Here’s an idea,” says Graham.  “Let’s try holding someone responsible for his own actions for a change. It wouldn’t be a shock. It would be a revolution.” 

Maybe fewer of us would make bad choices.

Creative Dishonesty

by Robert Pondiscio
October 10th, 2008

No plans this weekend?  Plan to spend some time on You Tube checking out the dozens of videos posted by students demonstrating innovative methods for cheating on tests.  For example, there’s not a teacher alive who won’t closely examine a Coke bottle on a student’s desk after seeing this:

A similar video has been viewed over 2 million times.  Enterprising cheaters show how to cheat with ballpoint pens, rubber bands, a hoodie, a three-ring binder, and a cough drop, among other common items.  Hopefully, your students are as brilliant as this would-be cheater

“I know it’s not a good thing to cheat,” explains Kiki in one video.  “It’s, like, academic dishonesty and blah, blah, blah.  But I think everyone has at least done it once.”  She then demonstrates a low-tech way of inserting information inside the clear tube a ballpoint pen.  “Hopefully, none of my teachers will see this video,” she adds.

Sorry, Kiki.

The Dark Side II

by Robert Pondiscio
September 15th, 2008

Well over half of high school students admit to serious test cheating and plagiarism, leading one academic to pilot a program to promote “academic honesty.”  Jason Stephens, described as “a rising star in the field of academic dishonesty,” by the Hartford Courant, wants to let students and teachers “come up with a strategic plan to promote academic honesty in their school and encourage teachers to emphasize learning over simply acing tests and getting a good GPA,” the paper reports. 

An assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of Connecticut, Stephens has launched a pilot project to test his theory at six Connecticut high schools– two in a wealthy suburb, two in a middle-class neighborhood and two urban schools.  Half of the schools are working on Stephens’ anti-cheating program, half are control groups.  Stephens hopes his work leads to the development of a toolkit for high schools nationwide to combat the cheating epidemic among students.

Virtually all of them are cheating because the pressure of having good grades is extraordinary, more so now today than 20 to 30 years ago.  It’s not because these kids are morally bad. It’s because the stakes are higher and the time is less…It’s not enough to get a 4.0 grade point average. It’s also being involved in a varsity sport, volunteering in the community, maybe having a part-time job – along with the social lives these kids live.

Seen through this lens, cheating is something of a time management exercise.  “Most kids see that as wrong,” Stephens says.  “The sad thing is that most kids do it anyway.”

It all sounds noble and good, but color me skeptical that you can get a lot of traction for a program that downplays grades at competitive schools.