Freakonomics catches teachers and sumos cheating

Recently I finished Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. While normally a book about the economics of anything would not appeal to me, I rather liked the subhead of A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. I’m the first to admit numbers are not my favorite thing. I dropped statistics in high school, although that was due more to a pervy teacher than any sort of fear of math. I’m actually pretty good at math, but just because I can do it, doesn’t mean I like to do it.


Freakonomics, however, is not the usual stuffy look at what works or is broken in today’s economy. While Levitt doesn’t explore the hidden side of everything as his title claims, he does look at fascinating topics including why drug dealers still live with their mothers, how choosing a name for your baby effects their futures and of specific interest to me as a teacher, what teachers and sumo wrestlers have in common.


Now I know I’ve put on some weight with my pregnancy, but I didn’t really think I had much in common with a sumo wrestler except maybe a love of sushi. As Levitt explains it though, teachers, like sumo wrestlers both cheat. This is actually not something that surprised me all that much.


Several years ago while taking one of those recertification classes I was bitching about a week ago, I wrote a paper on high stakes testing. During my research, I discovered some appalling information. Ever since No Child Left Behind came into play, standardized testing has taken on a whole new meaning. What I learned, is that in Texas, Mr. Bush’s home state, teacher retention and pay increases have been tied to student performance on standardized tests. In other words, if kids do well, teachers get to keep their jobs and get pay raises. If kids do poorly, however, teachers risk not only their standard of living pay increase, but their very jobs. It’s no wonder to me that after this policy was put into practice, many teachers were caught helping their kids cheat on the tests.


Cheating on a standardized test is actually pretty easy. Levitt caught teachers by analyzing all the individual answers of every student in the Chicago public school system. What he found was that after students had turned in their tests, teachers were going through and changing their answers. Not every answer, mind you, but enough to boost scores. In his example, he shows how in a class of 22 students, at least 15 students had the same string of six correct answers. At first glance, this seems a little suspicious, especially since the string comes towards the end of the test, where the harder questions tend to be. Not only that, but several of the students who got these answers correct left at least four of the questions in the same section blank, showing they probably could not have answered the earlier questions correctly. To add to it, these were poor performing students who did not have strings of six answers correct anywhere else on the test. The students made huge leaps during this year, however, the next year they sank back down to their low level. Obviously something was amiss.


I’ll save my thoughts on the content of Indiana’s high stakes test, the ISTEP+ for another day. This is about cheating and the motivations behind it. Like many things, it is motivated to a certain degree by money. I think it’s a little deeper than that though. I happen to teach 10th grade English, which is the year the ISTEP+ is given. For those who don’t know, the test, which is given in mid-September only features questions on math and English. According to the Texas model, if my kids don’t pass the test on the first try, I would risk my pay raise and possibly my job. Does this seem odd to anyone else? By the time my students take the test, I’ve had 26 classes to prepare them. We are on block four scheduling, so I’ve had exactly 39 instructional hours with my students. After 39 instructional hours, if they don’t pass the test, I’m to blame. What about the teachers who have had them their other 10 years of school? The ones who didn’t teach them to write a successful paragraph, much less the five paragraph essay the test looks for. What about the parents who have never made them responsible for doing their homework? Or more importantly, what about the group of kids I won’t have until January, since that is when we change classes and I get a whole new group of kids. Even though I won’t technically have taught them yet, my name would be associated with their test scores.


Thankfully Indiana has not yet gone to the extremes that Texas has, but it is coming. The rumor mill has it that the ISTEP+ is soon to be replaced by Core 40 testing. Right now Indiana is piloting this testing in a few subjects. It has no direct effect on the students’ ability to graduate, but every teacher is encouraged to count it as a major test grade. When the piloting comes to an end though, these new Core 40 test will become more of a final for the students, only instead of being an end test grade, they will decide whether or not students get credit for the class. Since a Core 40 diploma is the basic high school diploma*, they’ll have to have the Core 40 classes to graduate. These tests are coming for all subjects and they will be associated with specific teachers. There has been talk of letting teachers who have low pass rates go. While this may sound like flushing the system of some bad teachers, there is a high a probability that good teachers will suffer because their students have already been left behind by those before them.


Does this worry me? Yes. I regularly get kids who can’t identify a verb in a sentence, who don’t understand that an essay paragraph has to be more than three sentences (and all those sentences need to be on the same topic) and who cannot remember the details from a three page short story.


Although it will be much harder to cheat on these Core 40 tests as the current plan is to have them entirely on-line, I think it will just lead many teachers to cheat in other ways. Correcting students when they start to enter a wrong answer, leading students to the right answer, or just plain giving them answers to the questions. While I do not condone cheating, especially by educators, I can understand why some teachers do it. I have a feeling many of them are probably lazy and should be flushed out of the system. However, any administration or governmental office that puts so much stress on standardized testing obviously does not understand the face of modern education. They demean the profession of teaching by inferring that our grades are meaningless and the countless hours of work that most of us put in are useless. They don’t trust us to educate today’s youth. They make us little more than babysitters showing kids how to take a multiple choice test. I’ve babysat before, and all I can say is that with 30 kids in my classroom at the standard babysitting rate, I should be making a heck of a lot more money to be this abused.


*While there is technically a standard high school diploma below a Core 40 diploma, generally only special education students are allowed on this track Core 40 is the standard diploma track for all Indiana high school students unless they chose an honors track, which requires higher level classes.



Filed under life as a teacher, pet peeves, problems with society, what makes me me

6 responses to “Freakonomics catches teachers and sumos cheating

  1. Eee

    Ugh! I hate standardized testing. That’s why I teach college. If they fail (due to Shannon being a bad high school teacher the year before* or me being a bad college professor now*) they just pay the university more to take the class again. Everyone wins!



  2. Liz

    I teach the other ISTEP class – Algebra I. Parents need to be VERY CONCERNED about moving to the CORE 40 test. It’s A LOT HARDER than the ISTEP and we have been able to find out ABSOLUTELY NOTHING about how the state is going to grade it or write it. The latest practice test was written in 2005. I feel like the IN Dept. of Ed. is setting up both teachers and students for failure.

  3. beetqueen

    I agree that there needs to be great concern. The DOE is so out of touch with what goes on in classrooms these days. I’ve given the 12th grade Core 40 and it is ridiculous. They keep telling us the 10th grade test is coming to replace ISTEP and yet there hasn’t even been a pilot of it yet. It is amazing how the state expects us to raise standards and yet does not give us the tools or information to do so.

    I am terrified of the day Core 40 does replace ISTEP.

  4. josh j

    i got to take core 40 in 3 days in scared of the math i hope i pass!!! (hoping) yea were walking into this test kinda blind the teachers just teach us what there sopposed to and we got to apply it the test even though they don’t even no whats on it or what to prepare us for

  5. It’s great that you took your time to write this post; it’s inspiring to hear another’s opinion. I appreciate your work on this site, and I’ll revisit for more information.

  6. otis

    If you liked Freakonomics, you should read the books by Malcolm Gladwell. I particularly liked “Blink” and “What the Dog Saw”. Also, if you liked the summary of the the Indian Sociologist studying the Chicago drug trade, read “Gang Leader for a Day”. Its the whole story written by the Sociologist.

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