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CCE staff and partner reflections on our collaborative work to create schools where learning is engaging and rewarding, and every student is set up for success.

Pulling the Plug on Cheating: Engaging, Thoughtful Performance Assessments

Cheaters never win, so I’ve been told. And yet when I look at the assessment systems of many schools, it seems harder and harder to confirm that old adage. In my suburb, not only do many cheaters win, but with the aid of technology, it has become increasingly easy to cheat.

In some of my classes, a few of my classmates ace the online reading quizzes without doing the reading and with suspiciously little effort. They get those points, and come test day, all they have to do is memorize a few vocabulary terms and they can scrape by with a respectable grade. They still get the grade; they still win. Additionally, there are digital group conversations about the content of an upcoming test, and if someone were to suddenly turn off the lights in a room full of test-takers, I would not be surprised if one or more brightly lit screens remained to illuminate the darkness. Cheating, as one teacher put it, has "become ingrained in what we do."

Why Cheat?

I asked some of my classmates why a student would cheat. “Because it’s easy” or “studying for that class takes way too long” are common answers, but my friends also explained how they believed they could get the same results cheating as they could if they studied. So it comes down to results. I suppose it is not surprising that our general perception of what it means to get ‘results,’ (i.e., winning) is getting the good grade. Ideally, good grades should signify learning and competency in the designated area, but that is not always so. If students can convince themselves that they will get the same ‘results’ cheating as they would learning and gaining competency–if they can win by cheating–then there is a flaw in how we have come to define winning.

There are undoubtedly many different school experiences across the country with various environmental and cultural influences on a student’s school life. But in my high school, I see this skewed pressure to ‘win’ shaping many students’ experiences. Athletics, debate team, or music will not be the majority of students’ careers. Yet students, including myself, take considerable amounts of time to do these activities because we are passionate about them. Coaches seem to hold more sway over our lives than teachers do. Homework is scribbled down so we can get to practice, and essays are pushed back until after big games. Much of our secondary education, it seems, is just getting by, keeping the GPA afloat, rather than delving into the academic activities a student cares about. Ironically, even with lots of pressure to achieve academic success, students can put in surface-level effort: just enough to get the good grades, but often not enough to develop a passion or curiosity for subjects. And so it is easy to think only of winning in the now–of how cheating on this quiz could improve one’s competitiveness in the eyes of college, for instance—and harder to look to the future.

Can students not be passionate in the classroom as well? I have seen that it is possible. My eyes lit up when I saw how the bizarre parametric functions we were studying could be translated into 3D-printed creations, or when our economics class demonstrated the rationale for regulation by simulating The Tragedy of the Commons theory for ourselves. Not everything can enrapture and engage, but more often than not, assignments like these seem less like tests and more like anchors I can relate to and see applications through. These assignments, however, could not be properly assessed using multiple choice or fill in the blank assessments.

Decreasing Cheating in the Design Phase

I am not saying that it is all the school's fault. Teachers cannot hope to eliminate online solution manuals or quick texts and Snapchats to friends after a test. But these cheating techniques do reveal the flaws of the over simplistic testing environments in our schools. And these are things that are fixable.

To start with, tests can be designed to render many types of cheating useless. Quick memory recall tests for vocabulary and basic facts are necessary sometimes, but when test questions call for original thought with evidence of a coherent thought-process, it is harder to sneak a peek at one’s phone for the answers or get them from a friend beforehand. In fact, one of my English teachers was so confident in her test questions that she let us use whatever technology available to us during the tests. The content she was testing us on was not whether we remembered the intricacies of Shakespeare’s plot lines, but if we could understand and derive meaning from his techniques. When testing methods move away from simple multiple-choice recall to questions demanding application and understanding, not only will cheating become less of a problem, but it may also discourage the urge to cheat to begin with.

There are grander steps towards creating an environment less focused on the ‘win,’ such as offering classes students are interested in, de-emphasizing scores, and re-emphasizing competency. But changing whole curriculums and shifting societal norms is a journey that will take time. Therefore, the most viable step I see in the moment is developing better assessments. Performance assessments that discourage cheating and encourage a deep understanding of what is being tested–these lead the way. When these are implemented, students truly win.


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