When Ethics and Achievement Based Evaluations aren’t in Alignment or Why follow Ethics when Cheating Pays Better?

March 15, 2011

Last week I was speaking at a conference and during a lunch break on of the attendees said, “Wow, business must be great for you with all this interest in ethics and all.”  I must admit I was humored by her comment, because on the surface it would appear that firms of all shapes and sizes would be interested in ethics and ethical behavior.  Reality is, however, many give lip service to the idea, but their expectations from employees pushes the “need” button and starts the potential for a pattern of unethical behavior.

The following represent excerpts from an article in USA Today regarding cheating on standardized tests.  Mind you, in not all cases were the students the ones cheating.  See the following excerpts:

In 2008, teacher assistant Johanna Munoz helped her Orlando-area fourth-graders on the state achievement test.

According to investigative documents obtained by USA TODAY, Munoz erased wrong answers and whispered corrections while she was helping non-native English speakers with difficult words. She snapped her fingers in a code students understood to mean they should correct an answer.

While the teacher was out of the room, Munoz warned the students “not to tell anyone, not even your parents, what I did.” If they told, she warned, they “would fail fourth grade.”

This is high-stakes testing. The standardized tests required by the federal No Child Left Behind law have become one of the most important — and controversial — ways to measure a student’s progress, a teacher’s competence, a school’s success and a state’s commitment to education. That can be a heavy load for an assessment built on paper booklets and bubble sheets.

At Groveland Elementary in Groveland, Fla., where Munoz taught, at least one child told a parent about getting answers to the test, and the school began to investigate. Munoz pulled students out of class and again warned them not to tell. But one by one, the students confessed.

“You could almost see the relief in their face(s) as they let go of this burden,” says Groveland Principal Dale Delpit. One fourth-grader who initially defended his beloved teacher later blurted, “I lied!” in front of his classmates, tears streaming down his face, records show.

Munoz resigned after the school district concluded that she cheated and recommended that the school board fire her. She denies giving her students any answers and says she was never alone with them in the classroom.

“I have no clue why the kids said I helped them. I think one said it, then they all did,” says Munoz, 28, who was proctoring the test for the first time. She is now a day care worker.

NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND…perhaps a law enacted with the best of intentions, but a law that might have at its core the seed for the application of unethical behavior for both students and teachers.  And, it appears that, from experience, when outcomes aren’t matched with ethical choices – when the actions aren’t in alignment with integrity – people are naturally set up for a potential ethical disaster.


The USA Today report goes on to say in part:

Teachers cheat sometimes and so do principals, according to academic studies. Why it happens and how often — and the seriousness of efforts to stop it — are open to debate. Punishment varies from state to state, too. In an investigation of standardized testing in six states and the District of Columbia, USA TODAY found that an infraction such as casually coaching one student can carry nearly the same punishment as deliberately changing answers for a whole class.

In an Arizona State University survey published last year, more than 50% of teachers and other educators admitted to some kind of cheating on Arizona’s state tests. The authors of the online survey of more than 3,000 educators defined cheating broadly — from accidentally leaving multiplication tables on classroom walls to changing answers.

USA TODAY examined hundreds of “misadministration” and “irregularity” reports from state Departments of Education in Florida, California and Arizona. Such reports, which cover everything from missing test booklets to a teacher’s whispering answers to pupils, do not come to conclusions about whether there was cheating. That determination is usually left up to the school district or the state after an investigation.

Florida has one of the most rigorous reporting systems in the country. Yet in 2009, the state had only 112 reports of “compromised tests,” and just 12 of those reports indicated an allegation of intentional cheating by educators. In a state with 341,000 teachers and staff, that’s a minuscule fraction.


Whether it’s fraud (unethical behavior at it’s most serious) or behavior that is perhaps less severe, the three components are typically always there.  NEED, OPPORTUNITY and RATIONALIZATION.  If there is a need (good student results for example) an opportunity (teacher proctored tests) and rationalization (well, this is ridiculous we shouldn’t have to deal with these tests anyway – or – I’m a good teacher and I don’t think these tests should determine my pay increase or fate) – then there is a reasonable chance that a person who is by nature ethical might take the unethical road too often traveled…and every choice has a consequence.

Here’s another excerpt from the USA Today story:

Robert Hamann, a veteran social studies teacher, had been volunteering to help students at Scarlet Oaks Career Center in the Cincinnati area. So he already knew the senior taking the graduation-mandatory writing test.

Confused by the test instructions, the student asked for help. He told her to use the strategies they had discussed, and she began to string together a written answer. With each halting sentence, she looked to him for approval and he told her to write it down.

“In a moment of trying to help this kid, I kind of lost myself,” Hamann says of the 2005 incident. “This was what we had been doing in review. … This kid is in 12th grade trying to pass a ninth-grade test. This is her last shot. So, you’re explaining, explaining, explaining, and I think I gave her too much information.”

Hamann reported himself immediately. He got no breaks: His teaching license was suspended for three months; he now works as an administrator in another Cincinnati-area school.

“I didn’t think I was, at the time, violating any rules, but now … years later, it’s obvious I was,” he says.

Investigators acknowledge that without a confession like Hamann’s, some cheating is impossible to detect, because it often involves only a brief conversation between teacher and student.

It’s “a fairly simple operation. All one has to do is lean close and whisper,” says Christine DiDonna, coordinator and school counselor at Groveland Elementary in Florida. She has helped conduct several investigations, including the one involving Munoz, the former teacher.

To avoid expressly giving answers, some teachers have resorted to codes. At a California elementary school, the phrase “toilet paper” meant a student should subtract or “wipe away” a number in a math problem. In other states, a teacher would cross her arms if a student marked the wrong answer.

Kimberly Richter, a fifth-grade teacher at Schwab Elementary in Cincinnati, admitted to pointing at incorrect answers on the math test in 2008, but she said it was only to get the kids back on track. Many had quit paying attention 30 minutes into the two-hour-plus test. The school already was slated for closure, so better scores weren’t going to help.

“I knew it was wrong, but I didn’t think it would matter,” says Richter, who insists she never gave out correct answers. “I didn’t think it was going to blow up in my face like it did.”

Richter’s 25 students had to take a makeup test and her license was suspended for six months. She no longer teaches in Cincinnati Public Schools.

Upton reported from Florida for USA TODAY; Ryman from Phoenix for The Arizona Republic; Amos from Ohio for The Cincinnati Enquirer.

Contributing: Jack Gillum of USA TODAY in Washington, D.C.


Ethics…well that should be a high priority, yet, by our actions – results weigh higher than ethics when it comes to doing the right thing – at least enough of the time to  warrant more questions.  In a New York Times article the following examples were given about cheating and unethical behavior by adults in school settings.

¶At a charter school in Springfield, Mass., the principal told teachers to look over students’ shoulders and point out wrong answers as they took the 2009 state tests, according to a state investigation. The state revoked the charter for the school, Robert M. Hughes Academy, in May.

¶In Norfolk, Va., an independent panel detailed in March how a principal — whose job evaluations had faulted the poor test results of special education students — pressured teachers to use an overhead projector to show those students answers for state reading assessments, according to The Virginian-Pilot, citing a leaked copy of the report.

¶In Georgia, the state school board ordered investigations of 191 schools in February after an analysis of 2009 reading and math tests suggested that educators had erased students’ answers and penciled in correct responses. Computer scanners detected the erasures, and classrooms in which wrong-to-right erasures were far outside the statistical norm were flagged as suspicious.

The Georgia scandal is the most far-reaching in the country. It has already led to the referral of 11 teachers and administrators to a state agency with the power to revoke their licenses. More disciplinary referrals, including from a dozen Atlanta schools, are expected.

John Fremer, a specialist in data forensics who was hired by an independent panel to dig deeper into the Atlanta schools, and who investigated earlier scandals in Texas and elsewhere, said educator cheating was rising. “Every time you increase the stakes associated with any testing program, you get more cheating,” he said.

Perhaps it’s time we disconnect the three variables that open the door for cheating or unethical behavior.  If we can disconnect – need from opportunity from rationalization – then the outcome can’t by nature be unethical behavior or cheating.