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Your cheating heart

National | A new wave of academic dishonesty, among teachers as well as students

Issue: "AIDS: Africa's affliction," Sept. 9, 2000

With a new school year comes the prospect of reading, writing, arithmetic, and cheating.

In 1962, 39 percent of college students admitted that they have sometimes cheated in school. Now the percentage of self-confessed cheaters has been measured as high as 76 percent. That is to say, three out of four students-a number that apparently holds for both high-school and college students-admit to having copied someone else's homework, stolen answers on a test, or plagiarized a research paper.

New technology makes it easier. Dozens of websites sell research papers-often previously turned-in and graded. Buyers can thus even choose what grade they will get, with A papers costing more than a B or a C. Other students try to fulfill their writing assignments by simply cutting and pasting from articles on websites.

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But not only are students cheating. Now their teachers are sometimes cheating as well. Fifty-two teachers have been caught cheating on their competency tests, getting help with the answers for a bribe of $1,000. Thirty-four states currently require teachers to take the four-hour exam, devised by the Educational Testing Service to test both general knowledge and the teacher's subject area. Teachers from Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana, and Arkansas have been accused of paying off a test administrator at Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Ark., where the test was given. But even worse than teachers cheating on a test is when teachers teach their students to cheat on a test. Last year investigators discovered that over 50 teachers and administrators in 32 New York City public schools gave students answers to standardized tests.

Why would teachers help their own students cheat? To improve test scores, which have become key instruments in assessing schools and teachers. School reformers, rightly outraged at the decline in basic skills among graduates of our educational system, have pushed through measures requiring teachers to demonstrate mastery of the subjects they are supposed to be teaching (thus, the Philander Smith scandal in Arkansas). They have also demanded that teachers show their effectiveness by demonstrating student performance on test scores. Entire schools can be shut down or reorganized if test scores do not show improvement.

These attempts to measure a teacher's or a school's effectiveness are an appropriate response to the dumbing down of education. But human sin and ingenuity being what they are, these reforms have given birth to a whole new magnitude of cheating. At one Bronx school where teachers gave students the answers, the percentage of third-graders reading at grade level increased from 29 percent to 51 percent. Two schools made it off the state's list of "failing schools" because of the improvement they showed.

Interestingly, many educators are defending the new academic dishonesty. This all comes, they say, from an overreliance on standardized tests. True education, they say, cannot be reduced to the ability to color in squares on a standardized test. This reduction of learning to "getting the right answer," instead of the loftier ideal of creative thought, encourages cheating. And making a teacher's career and the school's funding depend on test scores forces schools to either "teach to the test" or to cheat.

But the basic problem is not that tests are standardized; it's that we have no standards. Sure, learning and achievement are more than performance on a multiple-choice test. But in a climate without absolutes, the only means of assessment left is to find data that is quantifiable. Mathematics can offer objective, empirical evidence that has the flavor of an unbiased, scientific fact. Standardized tests are the invention and the last hurrah of "modernist" educational theories.

By the standards of the classical Christian educational heritage, standardized tests get only at the "grammar" of learning, neglecting the higher-order thinking of logic and the practical application of rhetoric. But mainstream contemporary educators do not dislike the tests because they are insufficiently classical. Rather, today's educational establishment is "postmodernist," fighting the idea that learning has anything to do at all with learning objective information.

What is the answer to the cheating boom?

What technology giveth, technology can take away. The website plagiarism.org allows conscientious teachers, for a small fee, to enter suspicious paragraphs. The site will then search out the exact words on term paper and other websites, letting the teacher know exactly where it was taken from. In homeschools, children cannot escape, and it is much harder to fool the teacher. Christian schools, with biblically objective standards, can cultivate the higher levels of learning, which are far harder to fake. And Christian teachers and students can be taught that "thou shalt not steal" applies not just to money but to schoolwork.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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