NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Teachers Have Incentive to Cheat

October 31, 2003

In the last decade, the states and the federal government have begun using student scores on assessment tests to evaluate public school performance. For teachers and administrators, the stakes are high. In California, teachers in schools with large increases in test scores may be eligible for merit pay increases of as much as $25,000. In other states, years of abysmal test scores have resulted in entire school staffs being required to reapply for their jobs. Such high stakes give teachers and other school officials a growing incentive to cheat on school accountability tests.

In their study, coauthors Brian Jacob and Steven Levitt use Iowa Test scores from 3rd through 7th grade students in the Chicago public schools to develop and test a statistical technique for identifying likely cases of teachers or administrators who cheat by systematically altering student test forms.

  • Their results suggest that such cheating occurred in 3 to 5 percent of the elementary classrooms in their sample, and that relatively small changes in incentives affect the amount of cheating.
  • The authors conclude that school accountability programs based on testing would be well advised to institute safeguards against teacher cheating.

The authors' cheating algorithm relies on the fact that students in cheating classrooms will likely "experience unusually large test score gains in the year of the cheating, followed by unusually small gains or even declines in the following year." Just as important, answers within a cheating classroom will also display unusual patterns, such as identical blocks of answers for many students, or cases in which students answer difficult questions correctly but get easier ones wrong.

Source: Linda Gorman, "Do Incentives Cause Teachers to Cheat," NBER Digest, July 2003; based upon Brian Jacob and Steven Levitt, "Rotten Apples: An Investigation of the Prevalence and Predictors of Teacher Cheating," Working Paper No. 9413, January 2003, National Bureau of Economic Research.

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