First of all, this book has no plot (or what we think of as a plot) and Levitt even says himself that it has no theme. Levitt says, “Most books put forth a single theme, crisply expressed in a sentence or two, and then tell the entire story of that theme: the history of salt; the fragility of democracy; the use and misuse of punctuation. This book boasts no such unifying theme” (14). The book instead revolves around a series of questions that Levitt asked himself and then proceeded to dig through mountains of hard data to come up with an answer for the question. The questions include things like; What do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common? How is the Ku Klux Klan like a group of real-estate agents? Why do drug dealers still live with their moms? or How much do parents really matter? For the purposes of this discussion I will focus on the what do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common question. If you want to know the answers to the other questions I suggest you read the book, don’t the the inclusion of -onomics in the title put you off, it is very entertaining and intriguing.
So what is the answer to that question? Well it turns out that the answer is that they both have strong incentives to cheat and many of them do. I am not going to focus on what Levitt says about sumo wrestlers cheating because frankly, I believe many of you couldn’t care less. So instead I will focus on what he says about teacher cheating, a topic I believe is much more relevant to us at this time. What is teacher cheating? Teacher cheating is when teachers do deliberate acts, such as writing answers on the board, changing answers after the test is over, giving students more than the alloted time, or giving out exam questions early, that cause students in their class to score higher on a test then they should have. This does not happen on just any old test, it happens on our favorite kind of test, the standardized test. Now these are not tests like the ACT, SAT, or AP tests, these are tests like the OGT. We all know that if you do not pass the OGT you cannot graduate high school in Ohio. We all also know that if the school as a whole doesn’t do well funding can be withheld. This type of testing where a lot rides on a passing score is called high stakes testing. Levitt says, “The stakes are considered high because instead of simply testing students to measure their progress, schools are increasingly held accountable for the results” (26). It only became widespread about ten to twenty years ago and was only mandated by the government starting in 2002 with the No Child Left Behind Law.
Levitt says, “High-stakes testing has so radically changed the incentives for teachers that they too now have added reason to cheat. With high-stakes testing, a teacher whose students test poorly can be censured or passed over for a raise or promotion. If the entire school does poorly, federal funding can be withheld; if the school is put on probation, the teacher stands to be fired” (27). At one time California offered teachers $25,000 bonuses if their students showed large test-score gains. These are both very strong incentives for teachers to cheat and their final incentive was that teacher cheating was hardly ever looked for or punished when high-stakes testing began.
The Chicago Public School system is a fairly progressive school system. They had implemented standardized testing as a requirement to pass certain grades long before 2002 (1993 in fact) and decided when they started to keep a data base of every answer to every question that every student who took the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (we all had to take this test as well) provided. Over seven years they catalogued 100 million answers organized by the individual classroom and teacher each student had. Only recently did they decide to use this data to attempt to identify teacher cheating. They then built a computer algorithm that would look for suspicious patterns of repeating strings of answers. The results indicated that within the entire school system more than 200 teachers were cheating. Levitt then explains that this is a rough estimate, “The algorithm was able to identify only the most egregious form of cheating--in which teachers systematically changed students‘ answers--and not more subtler ways a teacher might cheat” (34). They also saw that they year they made their standardized tests high-stakes tests (1996) that teacher cheating went up dramatically and that it was in the classrooms with the lowest scoring students that teacher cheating was most likely to occur.
Now this data alone was not enough to fire the offending teachers so the CPS (Chicago Public School System) so they decided to retest some classrooms. They only had 120 retests available so they retested some classrooms that they knew to be good teachers from the answer data and some they suspected of being cheating teachers. If the students held their gains in scores no teacher cheating was occurring, if they didn’t teacher cheating was occurring (the teachers were never allowed to touch any part of the test). The expected happened, good teachers‘ students held their scores while cheating teachers students fell dramatically. The cheating teachers were subsequently fired and the next year teacher cheating went down thirty percent.
What do you guys think about high-stakes standardized tests? Do they give more incentive for students to study and generally raise the bar for learning resulting in more quality teaching? Or, do they unfairly penalize students who don’t test well, and they cause teachers to focus too heavily on test topics, leaving out more important lessons (for example how to manage your finances properly)?
How serious is the impact of teacher cheating on students? Is it basically harmless and doing a little better than they should doesn’t really hurt? Or, does it give the student a false sense of his own abilities causing shock and low grades in class when they discover in later grades of school that it is too difficult for them?
If you were a teacher who taught average level students and you were offered $10,000 if your students averaged a certain reachable but challenging score on a standardized test but you knew your students were not quite that good, would you cheat to get the $10,000 (a very large sum of money) or not and why.