Study: High Stakes Test Lead to Cheating

Teachers and school officials cheat in administering standardized tests in a minimum of 4 to 5 percent of elementary school classrooms, Harvard researchers recently reported.

Researchers blamed high stakes testing in public schools for the efforts to falsely improve students’ scores.

The study cited instances of teachers actually erasing student answers, quizzing students on the real test questions before the test and teaching “to the test” in order to achieve high test score results for a school system.

The authors, Kennedy School Assistant Professor of Public Policy Brian A. Jacob and University of Chicago Professor Steven D. Levitt, concluded that local policies attributing more weight to standardized testing made it more likely that teachers would cheat.

Using data from Chicago’s public schools, they correlated unusual patterns of answers within a single classroom, as well as unusually high scores in specific classrooms, with a high likelihood of teacher cheating.

“In isolating instances of cheating, we looked for suspicious or unusual test score patterns in an answer key,” Jacob said.

Economics Professor Caroline M. Hoxby ’88, who specializes in education, said that it was important to remember that the study’s conclusions were based on inferences. Neither of the researchers actually observed teachers tinkering with tests.

But even with that limitation, Hoxby said the study adds critical information about the current emphasis on high stakes testing.

“Before this relatively new era, people just didn’t worry about cheating,” she said.

Jacob said he hoped the study would lead to changes in the current standardized testing system.

“In the future, we hope to try to prevent this kind of behavior by having external monitors, as well as by performing random audits, to discourage these kinds of acts from reoccurring.”