Why Don’t More Kids Cheat?

Cheating happens. Athletes do it. Taxpayers do it. Now in Atlanta, investigators are alleging that educators may have done it too.

It’s been a few weeks since the big news that former superintendent Beverly Hall and a number of Atlanta Public Schools staff were indicted in an alleged scheme to cheat on Georgia state tests, including by erasing students’ incorrect answers and replacing them with the right ones. If true, the big question is, why?

There are many perspectives on this issue. Many feel that school accountability is to blame, at least in large part. There is no doubt that many educators in Atlanta stood to gain, both directly and indirectly, from test score gains, and that there were consequences for lack thereof.

My question is not whether incentives and accountability played a role in Atlanta, but whether the incident is a cautionary tale that should lead to a broad retreat from holding a high standard for academic progress in schools. Some folks are concluding that to be the case, based on questions raised in Atlanta, and in places like Washington, D.C. and Texas, too.

I would argue against it. Others have made compelling arguments to this effect on a number of fronts. The most compelling reason to me, though, is that we would never accept this logic from our students. We teach them every day that having something at stake is not an excuse for cheating or dishonesty.

High-stakes moments are nearly constant in the life of schools. Students write papers that count toward grades. They sit for finals. They take college entrance exams. At each of these moments, there is something to be gained by cheating.

And yet, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a teacher rationalize cheating among students by pointing to the stakes involved. No one says “Well, he paid his cousin to impersonate him on SAT day, but you have to understand, he wanted to be sure he got admitted to State.”

Student cheating happens – but it is not condoned, celebrated, or waved away. Educators preach to students that false achievements won’t help them in the long term, because the achievement is not real.

That brings me to a second dimension. Cheating among students may not be rare—that’s why exists—but it is not epidemic, either. Test tampering in Atlanta has been described as so pervasive that the entire district’s performance over an extended period of time is in doubt.

While students are caught cheating on in-school work, papers and standardized tests regularly, I have never seen it suggested that the performance of an entire population – say, rising graduates at Harvard, which is wading through its own cheating scandal at the moment – cannot be believed because so many of them cheated.

This is because students have faced stakes related to their academic performance for decades. They are used to it. The response has not been to remove all stakes but to limit opportunities for cheating and to enact reasonable enforcement mechanisms. Students don’t grade one another’s final exams. They show ID when they sign in at testing centers for entrance exams.

It’s not understandable to cheat simply because there is something to be gained by cheating. It’s the rare situation that doesn’t meet that bar. Instead, we should adopt reasonable safeguards against cheating that were apparently not present in Atlanta, and we should adopt a serious code of professional ethics that guides educators on what to do when suspicious things are happening. This issue is here to stay. Let’s get ahead of it.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

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