Testing: The Parent of Cheating

Henry Levin of Columbia Teachers College writes:

Among all of the vehicles for socializing the young, schools are a very powerful one, because students spend considerable time there and schools have specific functions in preparing young people for adulthood. Clearly, knowledge and cognitive functioning are an important goal of schools and provide crucial skills for creating productive workers and citizens. But non-cognitive or behavioural and social skills and attitudes are also crucial.

That’s from his article “More Than Just Test Scores” in the September, 2012 issue of Prospects: Quarterly Review of Comparative Education (and thanks, Diane Ravitch, for pointing it out). About the current testing mania, Levin writes:

One advantage of the focus on test scores is that such tests are relatively low-cost and easy to implement, at least for those skills that the tests normally assess. And, presumably, schools can improve those scores with better teachers, curriculum, and instructional materials. In contrast, we lack a clear understanding of which interpersonal and intrapersonal attributes are key to productive human development, how to measure them accurately and at reasonable cost, and how to help schools improve them. All of these limitations are good excuses not to include them in evaluating the quality of schools and school improvement.

Levin tries to point in the direction of how to assess “interpersonal and intrapersonal attributes,” hoping that schools will start to recognize that their vision of assessment is too narrow.

That’s not the whole of it, though. As an article in today’s The New York Times shows us (by implication), contemporary visions of assessment are not only too narrow but they encourage a culture of dishonesty–another reason that we all need to pay attention to what Levin is saying (which, of course, is not far removed from what John Dewey said, as I recounted in a post the other day). The Times article, “Studies Find More Students Cheating, With High Achievers No Exception” by Richard Perez-Pena, claims:

Experts say the reasons are relatively simple: Cheating has become easier and more widely tolerated, and both schools and parents have failed to give students strong, repetitive messages about what is allowed and what is prohibited.

It isn’t really quite so simple. That is, the blame can’t be placed simply on “schools and parents.” Since the advent of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, we have supercharged a culture of success by numbers. All that matters are results, and those are narrowly defined (all the way through school) through quantification. Numbers, no matter how they were achieved or how they were defined, have a validity to us that trumps just about anything else. This strips all other elements (including those both Levin and Dewey stress so strongly) from education leaving students with nothing but… numbers.

The novelist and screenwriter Budd Schulberg used to complain that people were taking his novel What Makes Sammy Run? as a how-to book. By stripping all but numbers from our schools, we have inadvertently made it into a guide for education. For education that will be as weak and morally bankrupt, ultimately, as Sammy Glick’s screenwriting ability and view of the world.

Cheating is not simply something rising at the same time as our current emphasis on standardized testing. It is a result of that emphasis. Until we can pull back from it and, at the very least, start exploring the path Levin points toward, it is going to remain as central to our system of education as testing is itself.

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