Last year, teaching a broadly differentiated algebra class, I had four to five tests per class. Cheating stopped being an option when kids didn’t even know what test their friends had, much less the person who happened to be sitting next to them.

This year, I did far less differentiation. My geometry classes formed a pretty tight abilities range; I have five or six kids who would have benefited from honors work and for whom my class as designed is just too easy. These kids learned a lot independently, but I didn’t frequently test them on it. I had another ten who were appropriately challenged by the highest difficulty problems in my normal class. Only two of my students were so far below the ability range that it was difficult for them to function; I’d had one of them last year and was able to help him be productive and keep learning math, which was much more important for him than learning geometry. The other one had health issues.

Of my 90 algebra II students, ten could have done more. The rest were sufficiently challenged with the “Advanced Algebra I with Algebra II Topics” course that I offered (to be fair, I covered all the state standards).

So I built two versions of each test and, in most cases, that was enough. Most of my low ability kids learn quickly that trying in class and doing their best on the test guarantees them a pass, and that’s sufficient for them. In this day and age, I find it heartwarming how many kids would rather be honest about their abilities and improve to the best extent they can, rather than continually try and cheat.

However, there are always a few who cheat. These kids are usually not the lowest ability students, but the liars. They do no work in class, then turn in a test with a whole bunch of right answers and no work on them. Some teachers demand that the students show their work and give them no credit for right answers without work. But many students—lots of them boys—do their work in their heads, and I see no reason to create a policy that makes them jump through extra hoops. Plus, the cheaters just invent work.

I am not a suspicious person, and identifying cheaters is hard for me. When I see a kid who has a lot of right answers and no work, I’m likely to blame myself first. Why didn’t I notice that this kid was a strong math student? This sounds incredibly naive, and I’m working to get past it.

I use multiple choice tests–not to save myself work, but because my top kids need the practice and my weaker kids have the opportunity to show knowledge without necessarily knowing all the steps needed to do the work. So the weak kid will get the zeros wrong on a parabola (picking 3 for the zero when the factor is x+3), but will be able to identify the basics for an exponential growth function, even if he doesn’t remember every step of the process. My quizzes are free response. This helps me confirm cheaters—a kid who aces the multiple choice test but has horrible math on a quiz? Cheater. (I’ve mentioned before that a number of kids have the opposite problem–they are strong at free response and terrible at multiple choice. Really.)

Anyway, at some point, I figure it out. My first response: I just don’t grade their tests. When they ask me about it, I say “You know, it’s the weirdest thing. You had a lot of right answers with no work. I’m thinking you should go to Vegas and try your luck. More likely, you should stop depending on the kindness of other students.”

“What, you’re saying I’m cheating?”


“You can’t prove it.”

“Don’t have to. I’m just not giving you a grade. Want to argue about it? Come show me how to do the work.”

They never take me up on the offer. Most of them get the hint and start to try. The rest of them get a free response test when everyone else is doing a multiple choice. They turn it in blank, I flunk them.

No, I don’t raise the issue with their parents. Life is too short. I am not morally scandalized by cheaters. I recognize cheating as an understandable response to the lack of choice students have at school. I don’t excuse it. I just don’t care one way or the other about the morality of it. The act of cheating will not, in and of itself, hurt a student’s grade. I will simply force the student to be graded on his or her actual ability, once I figure out that they are cheating.

In this state, teachers are legally prohibited from failing a student unless they got a D or lower at the second progress report. So if they have a C or higher at the progress report and stop showing entirely, they still can’t fail. If I have any students who stop working, therefore, I give them a D at the progress report even if their actual grade was higher (whether due to cheating or an earlier honest effort is irrelevant).

This year, I went longer than usual without any major tests—about 6 weeks from spring break to the state tests. I liked the results, as it gave me more time to focus on content. However, it meant that my cheaters got a break from scrutiny. Well, screw that. I don’t want to design my instructional strategy around cheaters and laggards.

So I told the kids that if they hadn’t been working or if in some way I were concerned about their abilities, they would be getting a D on the progress report—regardless of their actual grade. They were welcome to come in with their parents if they wanted to protest, and I could document their utter lack of work. (No one took me up on the offer).

This motivated a number of my cheaters to at least pretend to work after the second progress report, since they knew that they could be failed. And, happily, a couple did genuinely start to work.

Then, phase II. I test my kids weekly in May. I use the first two weeks to spot any additional cheaters and confirm the usual suspects. This year, I spotted two who I won’t be able to fail. But they’ll get a D-.

Those kids start getting free response tests instead of multiple choice. Which they turn in blank or with angry comments, because they have no clue how to do them. It’s kind of fun. “Hey, I don’t have the same test as other people!!” “And you know that because….?”

How many? I think it’s fewer than 10% of my 150 students who continue to cheat after I’ve made it clear I know what they’re up to.

So next week, when most of my kids are watching Rear Window, these kids will be taking an actual four page free response final. Not because I want to punish them. Heaven forfend. I just want to give them one last chance to pass.

I am certain that the students in question do not have any idea how to do any of the work. But if they do—if they convince me that they were just being lazy or trying to get a better grade than they could otherwise—they will pass. Like I said, I don’t care about the morality. I just want to grade them on their actual ability.


About educationrealist

3 responses to “Cheating

  • Multiple Answer Math Tests | educationrealist

    […] So the new CC tests are not multiple choice, a form that gets a bad rap. I give my kids in algebra one, geometry, and algebra two lots of multiple choice tests—not because I prefer them, and they aren’t easier (building tests is hard, and I make my own), but because my top students aren’t precise enough and they need the practice. They fall for too many traps because they’re used to teachers (like me) giving them partial or most of the credit if all they did is lose a negative sign. Remember, these are the top kids in the mid-level or lower math classes, not the top kids at the school. These are the kids who often can get an A in the easier class, and aren’t terribly motivated. My multiple choice tests attempt to smack them upside the head and take tests more seriously. It works, generally. I have to watch the lower ability kids to be sure they don’t cheat. […]

  • Sisyphean

    This is interesting because your description of the cheat test is exactly what my math tests always looked like in high-school. Lots of correct answers, little to no showing of work. In fact I don’t think I ever got back a test where the teacher didn’t have at least one note about showing my work. Luckily, I had no problem with in class demonstration. No teacher ever asked me to take a test over again, though I know of at least one student who voiced openly in a class that she wasn’t in that she thought I was a cheater, which I still don’t entirely understand to this day. Maybe tallest poppy syndrome, but her grades were better than mine. Eh. *shrug*


    • educationrealist

      But remember, I see my students work in math class every day. I know the students who can do the work in their head. The issue is kids who do nothing in class, or are very weak in class, and then suddenly turn in perfect tests. So it’s not “no work means cheating” but “no work from a low ability student means cheating”.

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