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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Going to the Bathroom, High-Stakes Style

Across the globe, students cheat on high-stakes test.  Students cheat on the SATs, even as far away as east Asia.  Closer to home, I heard a student once used color-coded M&Ms to signify A, B, C, D and E.  He'd push one color forward to signify the correct answer to his neighbor.  Very clever, until the proctor caught him.  

Students cheat on their Regents exams, even at NYC's Stuyvesant.   Many years back, I personally encountered a student cheating on the Regents.  I flipped the pages of her foreign-language dictionary.  She had taped two pages together and stuck a miniature crib sheet between the semi-sealed pages.  I didn't know the student and she didn't know me.  Still, I wasn't happy to turn her in and, as you can imagine, she was even less happy, particularly as she contemplated the probable degree of unhappiness of her parents.  

With the implementation of test-based measures of teacher performance for purposes of evaluation and, perhaps, the Governor's merit-pay plan, there will be new incentives for cheating.  Witness the erasure scandal which seemed to engulf D.C.  In NY City, teachers can no longer grade any papers of students from their own school--unless, apparently, there is an act of God, a.k.a., a Snowmaggedon.  If there is merit pay, there will be much greater cause for teachers to fall under suspicion.  

"Imperial examination cheating material" by Jack No1 - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Imperial_examination_cheating_material.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Imperial_examination_cheating_material.JPG

Sometimes, what's old is new and what's new is old.  Witness the picture above.  It is a pair of underwear with crib notes from China's era of traditional high-stakes civil-service exams.  Looks like clothes, at least in this case, might make the man!  

The twenty-first century version, more times than not, employs technology.   Witness the situation in Hubei province.  After 99 identical papers were discovered, fifty-four "invigilators" were called in the next year to set things straight.  Riots broke out when students and parents were angered to be singled out when cheating and bribery are endemic to the system.  Students chanted, "We want fairness.  There is no fairness if you do not let us cheat!"

In another unbelievable story from last year, 2,440 students, about 1/10th of the testing population, was implicated in a high-tech cheating scheme in Xian, China.  Phony candidates were sent to take a pharmaceutical exam.  Having memorized answers, they left early and transmitted their findings to students' wireless earpieces or eraser-size transmitters.  One source said, "cheating is widespread because the focus is on getting the certification, not the skills you need in the workplace."

With high-stakes tests which prove supremely challenging to many students and, perhaps, the advent of merit pay, cheating will only become more rampant in the U.S.  Some will get away with it and others will not.  The focus moves from learning to passing a test by any means possible.  The focus moves from attracting qualified teachers to paying for test "preppers," expensive exams, invigilators and metal detectors to try to subvert cheaters.  

And, yes, underwear still figures into cheating schemes today.  According to one source in Hubei Province, China:

"I picked up my son at midday [from his exam]. He started crying. I asked him what was up and he said a teacher had frisked his body and taken his mobile phone from his underwear [emphasis added]. I was furious and I asked him if he could identify the teacher. I said we should go back and find him," one of the protesting fathers, named as Mr Yin, said to the police later.

For students having supreme difficulities on tests, bathrooms will probably always be the greatest source of relief.  Even on my relatively low-stakes test, students have begged to run to the bathroom following the unveiling of their essay question.  I let them know that by doing so, they invalidate their exam.  They will have to take the dreaded makeup.  The bathroom emergency then miraculously dissipates.    

On high-stakes tests, students have the added benefit of going to the bathroom and returning to the same test.  Student can easily hide phones on their person, check websites for information and even text others for help.  Even before there were phones, students could arrange to cross paths in the bathrooms and exchange answers.  

Teachers will always know their students better, for better or worse, than any high-stakes tests.  The problem, however, is "reformers" do not trust teachers.  Some seem to revile them.  And worse yet, "reformers" set conditions that make it more than likely that some teachers will pursue $20,000 by taking the immoral path in life.  Any politician should be more than aware of these potential pitfalls.  

As long as there are high-stakes tests, there will be cheating.  The higher the stakes, the more the cheating.  There will probably be no end to the ingenuity of desperate students.  It is a shame that education fails to channel that same ingenuity into more productive ends. 

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