Blog Post

on cheating, standardized testing, and the coming decade

A few iterations of myself ago, I was a college composition and literature instructor. Anyone who's taught this particular category of courses knows that cheating is an enormous issue: take the ramped-up pressure on young people to set themselves apart from their peers in an era that has seen the highest rate of college enrollment in the history of America; add to that the increasingly fuzzy borders around what counts as 'plagiarism' in this mixed up, multimodal, shareable world; and toss in a generation of students who have received little guidance, if any, from adults on navigating issues of plagiarism, copyright, appropriation and sharing of ideas and content.

What you get: students who either don't know or don't care about why universities care so much about the ethics of plagiarism.

But we do our students a deep and lasting injustice by placing the blame solely on their shoulders. One reason students plagiarize is that it's easy: Writing instructors often distribute the same essay assignments semester after semester; they use essay prompts that are so worn, and so widely used, that even students who honestly intend to just find supporting resources for their essays online may end up having their entire papers mapped out for them. (cf. Is Willy Loman a tragic hero?; Take a position on gay marriage.) If we want our students to leave our classes and universities as independent, creative thinkers, then we need to offer them opportunities to think and write about things other than the stuff that every student in the history of college has already had to slog through.

Here's the two-pronged approach I started to implement right before I left teaching in favor of gainful employment and health insurance*: I developed writing assignments that a) required students to draft original writing and b) offered a way in to conversations about the difference between ethical appropriation and plagiarism. Here's one thing I tried: I asked students to draft a creative rewrite of a source text--they could write a prequel, add a scene into the text, or rewrite or extend the ending. Then they were required to analyze how their rewrite changed the story, and in so doing, to demonstrate an understanding of the themes and characters of the text. I only had time to try this once, but if I were to do it again I would also have students think and write about the appropriation / plagiarism issue as it relates to this assignment. I don't think it's a perfect assignment by any means, and students who were determined to cheat could still find a way to succeed, but it's certainly better--and more interesting--than the hackneyed old prompts that end up being so easy to lift from teh Google.

Being more creative instructors doesn't solve the cheating issue, but it's certainly better than the strange alternative of simply adding more policing to our learning environments. Did you see that NYTimes article about Caveon, a security program that detects cheating by comparing students' responses on standardized tests? Apparently, lots of students are using their phones to give each other the answers to test questions. Caveon also mines the internet for sites where students discuss their answers on high-stakes tests like the LSAT. Presumably, it notifies the makers of the test, who then remove the flagged items from the next version.

As you can imagine, this is a lucrative endeavor:

As tests are increasingly important in education used to determine graduation, graduate school admission and, the latest, merit pay and tenure for teachers business has been good for Caveon, a company that uses data forensics to catch cheats, billing itself as the only independent test security outfit in the country.

Well, at least students find out early what it's like to live in a country that generally believes that the best defense is a good offense: That catching and punishing wrongdoers will deter others from going down the wrong path. Never let the facts get in the way of a good theory: We'll keep passing ridiculously harsh drug laws even though they don't deter people from buying, selling, and using illegal drugs. Our politicians, supported by right-wing pundits, will resist extending unemployment benefits in the worst economic recession we've seen since the Great Depression. Why? Because they've decided, in direct contradiction of the evidence, that America's 15 million unemployed adults are lazy bums who just need a swift kick in the ass.

That's the world our students are headed for, so they might as well learn the lesson early that it's a world that prefers punishment over dialogue, short-term fixes instead of enduring solutions, and using bandaids to fix gaping wounds.

Look: students cheat on standardized tests because they know that the stakes are really effing high. They cheat because they don't see any reason not to--because it's not clear why 'authentic' achievement on a multiple-choice exam is even worth striving for. They cheat because they don't see any connection between the contents of those tests and the subject areas that matter to them as human beings. They cheat because the tests are stupid but the scores are important.

So instead of fixing a broken system with an overreliance on standardized tests, we just add more cops--this time, in the form of computer programs. Sure, that should work just fine. Just like it worked to add more proctors to testing locations. Just like it worked to collect students' cellphones before they began the exam. Just like it worked to guard test questions like they were matters of national security.

The low road is easier to walk, but it doesn't offer much opportunity for scaling mountains. In the coming decade, I would like to see us take the higher road a little more frequently.

*I lived in Massachusetts at the time, was an adjunct instructor and therefore not offered health insurance, and could not afford to purchase state-mandated insurance on an annual income that stayed safely below $20,000--even with the part-time job I worked on top of teaching a full course load every semester. But this is an issue for another post on another day.



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