Food For Thought

High-Stakes Testing and Cheating
by John E. Bonfadini, Ed.D., Contributing ColumnistProfessor, George Mason University

On my classroom wall at George Mason University is a copy of the school’s honor code. It states that students are on their honor to do their own work. Essentially, it means I should be able to leave the room during an exam and my students would do their own work. I hope they don’t think I’m that naive. Even teachers, of which my classes are mostly composed, would be tempted to sneak a peek every now and then. So I just stay in the room — it makes life easier for all of us.

Food For ThoughtRecently, I’ve gone to more independent forms of teaching, using the Internet where my students might have more opportunity to cheat. The work is done at home and e-mailed to me, so I really don’t know to what degree each student obtained help in answering test questions or in preparing their final research reports. During each semester, I tell them that the most difficult task they will have in this course will be to resist seeking help and to do their own work. The message is simple: "Don’t cheat." I further explain that if they do, then how can they expect their students not to do the same? Someone usually asks if I ever cheated. I take the Fifth Amendment.

The term "cheating," like the word "love," has many implications. All of us cheat just as we all love. Tell me one person who hasn’t cheated on the speed limit. I do every time I hit the road, especially Interstate 95. I guess we just expect a certain amount of leniency in some situations. I have never understood why we don’t post the speed limits that most people tend to drive. What would happen if we lowered the speed limit to 55 mph on Interstate 95? Would you think it was unreasonable and cheat? I’m using this analogy to show that setting fair rules and standards goes hand-in-hand with the amount of cheating done. Therefore, setting tests’ passing scores or rewards unreasonably high will lead to cheating.

The recent trend toward high-stakes tests has caused some of our educators to cheat on the exams. The newspapers have been full of these stories. It’s a sad day for education when its leaders are so pressed by one evaluation document that they see the need to assist students in cheating. Who’s to blame? I say the system that implements unreasonable standards and the individuals who cheat are equally to blame.

What’s Your View?

Obviously, there are at least two sides to every issue. Do you have a different view? This column is meant to provoke thought, so keep sending comments. Each one is read with the utmost interest. Send e-mail to:, or send written responses to the editor  or to John Bonfadini, 7500 Forrester Lane, Manassas, VA 20109.

Let me give you a scenario. Your child makes all A’s and B’s and is taking the final exit exam, which states that you must obtain a score of 600 or you don’t pass, no matter what your yearly grades are. Your child has a score of 599 and you can give him one more answer to put him over the top, which in turn will allow him to graduate. What would you as a parent do?

Students come from home environments with varying degrees of parental involvement. Some parents take great time in helping their children with school assignments. They provide extra personal help or outside tutoring. Is this not a form of cheating? If I send my child off to sports camp in the summer, have they cheated to make the team? We have a rule that all teams must start practicing at the same time; why not the same rule for individuals? Students take SAT prep courses where agencies guarantee a 150-point increase in their score. Is this a form of cheating? If not, shouldn’t all students have the right to this help? I could go on and on about the inequities surrounding the education of all children. There is no simple answer, and high-stakes testing only contributes to the problem, especially if the tests are used improperly.

Neither educators nor society can condone cheating. We need to encourage everyone to do their best work with their own tools. Furthermore, all of us involved with education should establish a non-threatening atmosphere for learning that motivates students to learn by example. Overuse of high-stakes testing will only encourage more cheating.

Last month my article centered on research my classes did on the SOL tests. Northern Virginia parents (373) were surveyed as to their perceptions of the test and its use. I’ve just analyzed another set of 390 parents who completed the same survey. The correlation between the two sets of findings is r=.964. This relationship value is extremely high, showing that the survey findings are highly reliable and definitely reflect parents’ views. If you desire further information on the findings, contact me.


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