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Cheating Students—Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,
My daughter is about to start fifth grade. We were talking about how things will be different from being in the classroom, but also different from last spring. She shared with me that she doesn’t like it when students cheat on tests in her class.

When I asked if she had an idea as to what to do about it she said, “Tell the teacher so they get in trouble.” Do you have a better suggestion?

Just A Mom

Dear JAM,

Your daughter is expressing an awareness of right and wrong which is admirable, however, a wider view could help her be a better citizen. Your daughter’s perception of her class atmosphere seems to be that adults enforce rules and punish offenders. She may be worried that a cheater will find a way to cheat, even with online learning. Of course it isn’t fair, because some students work hard to do well on tests. It’s also true, however, that some students don’t put much effort at all into schoolwork and yet manage to consistently get great grades. And there are students who,no matter how hard they try, are not able to do well on tests.

Students cheat for many reasons, mainly because they don’t think they could get a better grade without cheating, and a better grade is something they want to have. They may also be trying to pull one over on authority figures – teachers, parents – in which case, any academic learning is irrelevant, because they are only motivated to prove they’re more capable than the adults think they are. This misdirected behavior serves to make cheaters feel powerful, because they were able to bypass the studying that the adults wanted them to do. Getting a good grade is only something the students want because it’s something the adult values.

Often, the students who cheat on tests simply don’t see themselves as successful test takers. Of course, not every student who doesn’t do well on tests will cheat, but that’s not what’s buggingyour daughter.

If she works hard to get as a good a grade as she can on a test, and resents those who can get a good grade without working as hard, she, and her classmates, are missing the joy of learning for its own sake. Unfortunately, too many classrooms are run without joy.

The field of education recently lost a great champion of the joy of learning, Sir Kenneth Robinson, who died last week from cancer. He created an animated talk about the misdirected structure of our education systemstructure of our education system, a system that works like the assembly line of an automotive plant. Mass produced education applies the same academic content and assessment to every student, who presumably vary only by their start date. Students are judged against all others in the same grade level on common assignments and tests. (As an aside, the rise in ADHD diagnoses and prescriptions, Robinson says, is due to a standard of focused attention being applied to all students that goes against the realities of an overstimulating environment.) The culture in a school classroom constricts the students’ thinking so they believe along with the teachers that, “There’s one answer. Don’t copy. That’s cheating.”

Robinson notes that, “outside the classroom that’s called collaboration.” Your daughter’s concern shows that she judges her classmates’ abilities to follow the rules of
school, as if cheating and test-taking were the only measure of a person’s worth. I wonder if she could sympathize with a classmate who is less than stellar with test-taking, but manages to succeed at cheating? If she is so bold as to think she could disclose such misdeeds to the teacher, maybe she could instead make a more positive, and long-lasting, suggestion.

She might suggest Study Buddies, so that a peer has a chance to help a would-be cheater understand the material before a test. Or the teacher could give Practice Tests leading to differentiated lessons for those who need specific help before the graded test. (In Anne Arundel County Public Schools, as in other districts, teachers have scheduled office hours for individual assistance.) Or perhaps by alerting this year’s teacher to the problem of cheating on tests, the teacher can pre-empt any cheating attempts by administering tests that are harder to cheat on (questions in different order, parent verification, etc.). Or the teacher could promote access to free resources for students, such as CovEd, a project of college students at M.I.T., Yale, and other universities to provide online tutoring. Or the teacher could reduce the emphasis on test scores with opportunities such as discussions or projects to elevate a poor test-taker’s grade. If your daughter has a few allies in her class they might approach the teacher as a group – through a letter or video conference appointment, to help create a class culture based on joyful learning.

And if the teacher is unable to act on any of these well-meaning suggestions, try to minimize the importance of a test grade for your daughter, particularly during the challenges of a pandemic.Your job as a mom is to help your child recapture the joy of learning that was overtaken by an
emphasis on test scores.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist with degrees in Early Childhood Education, Counseling, and Human Development. Workshops for parents, teachers, and childcare professionals can be found at: drdebbiewood.com.

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