This video by the New York Times illustrates just how much faster sprinter Usain Bolt is than Olympic medalists of yore. The video’s key takeaway is that the crème de la crème of athletes have over the years pushed themselves to consistently higher standards. Whereas breaking 10 seconds used to seem nearly impossible, it is now all but a requirement of medaling in the 100m sprint. While the Olympics has a comprehensive drug testing program to keep its athletes from abusing performance-enhancing substances as they pursue better athleticism, America’s high schools lack the ability to place similar checks on student academic performance. Students are improving their grades just like sprinters are improving their times; but in schools, cheating among the best and the brightest in order to attain those high grades has become a pervasive problem and in some cases the norm.
Take, for example, the prestigious Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, N.Y., where 71 students were caught cheating on New York’s Regents exam (and those were only the ones whose involvement was proven). These “cheaters” are unlikely to be found participating in immoral activities on the regular, yet each of them justified cheating by weighing it against the consequences of a less-than-stellar score on the high-stakes Regents exam. To extend the Olympics metaphor, these students are “doping” their academic performances.
This scandal was not about each cheater emerging as the top student with the only perfect score. Instead, the Stuyvesant cheating episode showed us that students – especially high-performing students – are terrified of falling behind and are willing to cheat in order to stay on their path to success. For students aspiring to The Ivies and other highly acclaimed colleges, a single mediocre test score can be a setback or even a deal breaker. Cheating reduces the likelihood that a bad night’s sleep or a tricky multiple-choice question will sabotage their academic status in an increasingly competitive environment.
Among the best students, the fear of losing out on a bright future is only exacerbated by rampant grade inflation at the high school level. It has become progressively more difficult to “stand out” among seemingly more impressive peers. Thanks to a bell curve that has gradually migrated toward 4.0, the only students who truly stand out nowadays are the poorest performers. Many scholars agree that GPA inflation is not necessarily indicative of greater intelligence or better performance, but top grades are increasingly the standard for students. In order to stay competitive, all students must be A-students.
That rampant cheating has become the norm at schools like Stuyvesant suggests that there are serious structural issues within our academic institutions. Although students play a role, schools and policymakers can address cheating from the top down. Introducing flexibility into high-stakes testing environments is one potential solution. Flexibility could be as simple as offering students a variety of assessment opportunities, which many schools use anyway, and then allowing the students to assemble a testing portfolio of their best performances. Columbia, for example, has recently joined the ranks of other colleges (including several Ivies) by implementing “score choice” in its admissions policy. In a nutshell, score choice allows applicants to select their best test performances to include in their admissions portfolio. This opportunity both reduces the pressure of each individual assessment and better enables schools to get a more comprehensive impression of their applicants.
The bottom line? Students can and will continue to cheat if grade inflation and single-shot high-stakes test scores remain the most prevalent measures of student performance. Providing different (and more) opportunities for kids to separate themselves from the pack will lower the pressure for a single perfect score—and provide more authentic and useful measures of student ability in the process. Olympic sprinters only have one race to win their medal, but schools can and should provide additional opportunities for our nation’s top high school students to show off their best work.
Written by Education Sector Policy Intern Avery Newton