What Everyone Wants to Know about Cheating in Schools

By Dr. John Fremer

There was a time, not that long ago, when state assessments did not create much interest in the media.  State assessment leaders and testing company professionals tried to think of ways to make testing results more newsworthy, scheduling special briefings for the press, holding “mock” testing sessions and the like.  Not any more.  The media is buzzing with stories about cheating in schools. What are the questions being asked and how can they be answered?

In the past year, I have been interviewed weekly about preventing and/or detecting cheating on high stakes tests.  By “high stakes,” I mean any standardized tests used to make important decisions about students, teachers, schools, and programs.  There are three questions I am almost always asked, regardless of the specific purpose of the reporter’s intended story:

  • Is there more cheating by educators now than in the past?
  • How can you detect whether cheating has occurred?
  • What can states and schools do to eliminate or minimize cheating/

There are other questions, but these three are asked very consistently and I will answer each one.

Is There More Cheating Now?


Yes, there is more cheating by educators now then in the past.  There has been a trend toward greater levels of cheating that goes back decades and I say this based on experience not just “book learning.”  I am in my 50th year as a testing professional and I have seen this trend unfold in many areas of testing not just in education.

How Can You Detect Cheating?


Although cheating by educators is a very worrisome problem, I take comfort from two aspects of the situation.  First of all, I estimate the proportion of educators involved in high stakes state testing who engage in cheating to be between one and two per cent.  You can find higher estimates.  In the important and very widely read book “Freakonomics” a testing misbehavior estimate of five percent is provided, but I think that overstates the actual amount.

Another source of my positive feeling is that I know that there are a good size set of tools that can identify how much cheating is occurring, where it is taking place, and how serious it is.  Caveon uses seven different indicators when we run our detection approach ,“Caveon Data Forensics™.” Here are three very critical ones:

  • Very unusual gains from one year to another. If the results from a class or school seem too good to be true, don’t accept them without a great deal of careful scrutiny.
  • Very high levels of similarity in the specific test results at the individual test question level between a pair or a group of students. How could it be that two classmates taking a 40 item state test, would not only get the same 20 questions correct and 20 wrong, but would choose the identical wrong answer in every instance?  That simply does not happen when students work independently.
  • Very high numbers of erasures, especially wrong to right.  Most students make very few erasures on each section of a state assessment.  So when substantially larger numbers of erasures show up and when a huge proportion of the changes are from a wrong to a right answer, alarms need to go off – “trouble here.”

Caveon advocates using multiple indicators because a single number cannot tell the entire story by itself.

What Can States and Schools Do?


Even though the level of educator cheating is low, any cheating at all by teachers and others is profoundly worrisome to parents, school board members, community leaders and others.  So what can be done to reduce cheating?

  1. Communicate Zero Tolerance – It needs to be crystal clear to everyone involved in testing that the school or district or state will not tolerate cheating. It is not enough to merely to say “that we do not tolerate cheating” at a staff meeting or include a “No Cheating Allowed” commitment in training materials for testing.  It is essential to deliver this message at every stage of the testing process and to get clear evidence of each person’s commitment to follow all testing rules. It is essential also that those individuals who have the primary responsibility in each school know that they have the unqualified support of school, district, and state management to train staff.  Also, that they may monitor all phases of testing to be sure that fairness and validity of results can be counted on.
  2. Analyze Test Results after Every Administration – All involved in testing should be made aware that thorough analyses of test results are going to be carried out and that there will be significant consequences if rules are not followed.
  3. Act on Problem Results – When evidence surfaces of failures to adhere to the rules of testing, it is essential to take action on these findings.  Only in this way will the seriousness of managers be made clear.


You now have my take on the three of the public’s highest concern questions about cheating.  If anyone wants to talk about their own experiences or to learn more about mine, please let me know. I thoroughly enjoy exchanging ideas with others who are committed to fair and valid testing.


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