Cheating happens when it’s a salient option

Philadelphia Public School Notebook‘s article on the teacher who explains cheating should remind us that this is a tempting option that attracts both premeditated and pressure-related enactment. As a result, I’d advise a little ego-checking for those who are sure the Atlanta cheating scandal is primarily caused by high-stakes testing and also those who are sure that the only thing we need to do is have better test security. A retired state assessment head once told me the operating principle on test security was, “If the test has been used once, someone has a copy.” But that doesn’t mean that cheating is equally widespread. Context matters, and I am disappointing in the glib responses to the cheating scandals (either “it’s all the stakes” or “the stakes have nothing to do with it”).

More specifically, local relationships matter in terms of ethics and choices under strain. Regardless of the legal framework, Beverly Hall deserves the blame for fostering an environment where looking good was more important than doing good. In Atlanta, the local relationships between people in a large school system fostered cheating, and once a critical mass of cheating adults was visible, others mirrored that. Pierre Bourdeau and William Julius Wilson have each written about this “person-next-to-you” influence with the term transmission by precept, and I think it applies here.1 The behavior you see around you shapes what you think is doable. If you see the teacher or student next to you cheat and apparently benefit, well, you might not do it that day, but it’s part of the repertoire of humanity that may become possible for you, a salient option. Or, in another context Brenda Sutton wrote about,

I remember as a teenager I swore that when I grew up
I would never say the things Mom said to me,
But I find my mother’s phrases popping out in crazy places,
And what’s more, they sound like sensibility.

The question here is the relationship between broader policy and cheating. Of course there’s been cheating for decades… or centuries, if you go back to the imperial Chinese civil-service examinations. But policy matters–or the advocates of high-stakes testing hopes it changes behavior–and to pretend it can only provide benefits is inconsistent with the whole theory of action of high-stakes accountability. Essentially, if you think you can change behavior, you can change it in all sorts of ways. Whether it’s beneficial on the whole is an empirical question, unless you want faith-based accountability policy.

So the relevant question for me is, under what circumstances does cheating become a salient behavior in a high-stakes regime? I’m going to go all Popperian on you and make some testable claims.

  1. There is a measurable variation in cheating no matter what the pressure behind a test is — that is, if we can measure cheating to be able to make some distinctions, there will be differences in cheating rates both in low-stakes environments and high-stakes environments.
  2. There will be more cheating in high-stakes environments than in low-stakes environments — that does not mean that there aren’t going to be high-cheating settings in low-stakes environment that are worse than some settings in high-stakes environments.
  3. One of the key factors in rates of cheating will be perceived opportunity, or the salience of cheating as a visible option.
  4. Another key factor will be the perception that cheating is a more reliable way of attaining goals (including avoiding shame/punishment) than effort.
  5. Of the two, salience will be more important in determining level of cheating.
There! Now, in the best sense of putting one’s ideas out there, go prove me wrong!2
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  1. Bourdeau talked about it in contrast with what he called transmission by prescription–i.e., modeling is as important as what you tell people to do. Bourdeau, Outline of a Theory of Practice, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977, p. 88; Wilson, When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996, p. 71. []
  2. There is a body of literature on student cheating in college–it is not as useful for these contextual issues as one might wish. []