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Ditch Testing: Lessons from the Atlanta Scandal (Part 3): Human Nature?

16 July 2011 17,381 5 Comments

Ditch Testing: Lessons from the Atlanta Scandal (Part 3): No Technical Fix: Human Nature?

Chester E. Finn says cheating on test scores “is about human nature.” Assuming cheating is human nature, then it would be logical to accept one of two assumptions: a) everyone cheats or has the tendency to cheat or b) some people are more likely to cheat than others by nature. But applying either one to the Atlanta situation raises more questions.

Fact 1: 80% of schools, nearly 200 educators, and 1,508 classes participated in cheating that had been ongoing for almost a decade in APS.

Fact 2: “Ninety percent of Georgia schools raised minimal or no concern [of cheating]. Of the schools that raised “severe” concern, half were in Atlanta Public Schools even though the system has less than 5% of the state’s schools and students.”

Question 1: If everyone cheats or has the tendency to do so by nature, why didn’t educators in other Georgia schools participate in cheating?

Question 2: If some people are more likely to cheat than others by nature, can it be true that Atlanta just has a higher proportion of educators with the “cheating gene?”

In fact, evidence suggests cheating has been reported much more frequently in schools that serve disadvantaged students (large urban schools). For example, investigations in Pennsylvania found that “Philadelphia accounted for 44 percent of the 225 schools flagged statewide in the 2009 “erasure analysis.” Then there is Washington DC, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, and Baltimore, as I mentioned in the first post of the series and reported in this post by U.S. News and World Report.

It is very hard to believe that large urban districts that serve poor children are more likely than others to have more educators who are born cheaters. Rather, it is likely that conditions in these schools are more likely to trigger the “cheating gene” in all of us.

What could have triggered so many educators to cheat in Atlanta?

Stakes and consequences

It may be human nature to engage in dishonest behaviors, but it is also well understood that such behaviors are unethical, possibly illegal, and if uncovered, costly. Cheating on test scores can have serious consequences socially, morally, financially, and legally for teachers. Cheating is a risky activity and can be psychological distressful. For any rational individual to engage in such behavior there must be incentive that motivates them to do so. That is, they must be getting some benefits that outweigh the potential and real costs.

What educators in Atlanta got of cheating then? Avoidance of intimidation, humiliation, and possible losing their jobs as well as bonuses. The Georgia investigation found “a culture of intimidation and humiliation under the helm of marathon (now retired) schools chief Beverly Hall, who stressed results and data and implemented programs that paid teachers bonuses in exchange for achieving results above and beyond the rates required to make AYP.”

It is about the consequences, as Gregory Cizek, a professor of educational measurement and evaluation at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who has assisted with the Georgia investigation, said in a Washington Times article about what caused the massive cheating in Atlanta:

There’s a very simple cause: consequences… Any district where you’ve got kids who are at risk of not succeeding … there are problems as big as Atlanta, as big as D.C., as big as Philadelphia. The more stakes there are involved, the more you’re going to see it.

But why did it happen more often in Atlanta and other schools where more disadvantaged students are served?

More students at risk of failing

An obvious answer is that in Atlanta and other schools of similar demographics there are more students at risk of failing the standardized tests and thus cause the school not to make AYP under NCLB. Compared with schools where students come from more advantaged backgrounds, these schools have a stronger need to cheat in order to make AYP.


Amotivation is another trigger. Amotivaion or lack of motivation “to pursue an activity due to its lack of value to a person, or that person’s feeling of incompetence or inability to obtain a desired outcome” has been identified as a strong factor strongly associated with college business student cheating by research. Research found that when people are in the state of amotivation, “they perceive their behavior as caused by forces out of their control; they are neither intrinsically motivated nor extrinsically motivated…” In Atlanta and similar schools, not only the need is stronger to cheat, but also the teachers may have developed a stronger sense of “helplessness” in their own ability to genuinely improve students’ test scores through teaching because many factors are out of their control. So they could rationalize by telling themselves they had to cheat, just like amotivated students, who choose to cheat as a means to avoid failure.

Test scores as meaningless and unfair indicators of education

Research on academic cheating also discovered that when college students are intrinsically motivated to pursue knowledge, they are less likely to cheat in the course. In contrast, students motivated by extrinsic or performance factors, such as academic standing, grades, or some other performance evaluation, they are more likely to cheat. In other words, if students view studying for a course as genuinely meaningful and the grades reflect their true learning, they are much less likely to cheat than when they view the course as simply a hoop to jump through.

Peter Gray, a research professor of psychology at Boston College, suggests that the lack of passion or genuine interest in scientific research as a major reason that leads to dishonest conduct in scientific research. Those scientists who engage in cheating are not truly curious about scientific phenomenon. They do not enjoy scientific explorations. They do science because they were asked to do or think it is a good career. He blames the loss of passion and curiosity on schools:

One of the tragedies of our system of schooling is that it deflects students from discovering what they truly love and find worth doing for its own sake. Instead, it teaches them that life is a series of hoops that one must get through, by one means or another, and that success lies in others’ judgments rather than in real, self-satisfying accomplishments.

Taken together, we could hypothesize that the educators who participate in cheating may feel that the tests do not really reflect the ability of their students or their own efforts. The tests are simply external hoops they and their students have to jump through. As a result, they have no intrinsic motivation to help students raise their scores. But they have to make sure their students achieve certain scores, so they have to cheat, which to them may be a form of resentment or deliberate disobedience.

In summary, what seems to trigger more cheating in Atlanta and other schools that serve more disadvantaged students seems to be a combination severe consequences (high stakes) of failure, a sense of helplessness to improve student achievement to meet the unrealistic goals, and doubts of the intrinsic value of the tests. In well-to-do schools, teachers may doubt the value of the tests, but their students are much less at risk of failing the exams, so they do not have as strong a need to cheat. Thus there is no doubt that the test-driven accountability system corrupts our schools and causes educators to cheat.

There is no quick and easy technical fix because when the stakes are high, goals unrealistic, and measures unreasonable, people will find ways to beat whatever security measures are put in place. More importantly, if we look at enhancing security measures or increasing punishment as a way to stop cheating, we will see more damages, without actually stop cheating.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 4

Part 5

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  • Meyer said:

    I think you also need to examine the structure of the school itself. It’s possible that part of the reason cheating happens is that teachers are in disorganized schools that prevent learning from happened due to a variety of internal issues. Changing the culture of such schools would allow teachers to feel that their teaching is actually paying dividends for students and build investment in student outcomes.

  • The Best Posts & Articles About The Atlanta Testing Scandal | Larry Ferlazzo's Websites of the Day... said:

    […] Ditch Testing: Lessons from the Atlanta Scandal (Part 3): Human Nature? Ditch Testing (Part 4): Test Security Measures in China […]

  • Bill Peterson said:

    “Chester E. Finn says cheating on test scores “is about human nature.” Yes, there are many stories of cheating during historical times; and the agricultural revolution which accentuated ownership, surplus and scarcity may have supported some types of cheating. However, I would be very interested to see the research studies that Professor Finn is relying on to support his “human nature” of cheating as a natural characteristic modern humans over the last 200,000 years or so, and also interesting would be evidence of the “cheating gene” questioned by Professor Zhao.

  • Reflections on Teaching » Blog Archive » Think nationally, act locally… said:

    […] Yong Zhao » Blog Archive » Ditch Testing: Lessons from the Atlanta Scandal (Part 3): Human Nature? If we are looking at changing our evaluation tools this cannot be decided unilaterally, as has been done with the calendar. […]

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