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Principal, teacher clash on cheating

Last week’s column, full of practical suggestions on how to limit cheating, did not seem controversial to me. Many teachers sent their own ideas. Many recommended small adjustments, such as having the questions in different order for different students, to hinder copying.

So I was surprised to hear from Erich Martel, an Advanced Placement U.S. History teacher at Wilson High School in the District, that his principal, Peter Cahall, was critical of him doing that.

Martel’s classroom, 18 by 25 feet, feels like shoebox to him. Some days he squeezes in 30 students, plus himself. That is 15 square feet per student, which Martel has been told is well below the district standard of 25 square feet. The cramped conditions led to a disagreement when Cahall assessed Martel’s work under the school district’s IMPACT teacher evaluation system.

During one post-evaluation conference Martel told Cahall what he did to frustrate cheating when students are so close together. He created two versions of the same test by putting the pages in different sequences, a method many teachers endorse. He showed Cahall a quiz on which he printed the questions in a smaller font, making them harder to read from the next chair over.

These struck Martel as useful methods in a high school--like nearly all high schools--where many students will cheat if given a chance. He was startled when Cahall expressed a different view.

“You are creating an expectation that students will cheat,” Martel recalls Cahall saying. “By creating that expectation, they will rise to your expectation.”

When I asked Cahall about it, he did not deny that he said it. His intention, he said, was not to prohibit Martel’s methods but to urge him to consider another perspective.

“I am not opposed to multiple versions of a test or quiz; it is standard operating procedure for every type of testing program,” the principal said in an e-mail to me. “Instead, I would prefer that teachers use more rigorous assessments when possible, that require written responses and higher levels of thinking. In addition to being more challenging and requiring a sophisticated skill set, these types of assessments are also more difficult for students to copy.”

“Ultimately,” Cahall said, “I have high expectations for my students in their academic performance, behavior, and morals. My educational philosophy is grounded in the honor code. I trust my students unless they give me reason not to, and in my experience this has been effective.”

Could we be addressing widespread cheating in the wrong way? Could more honors systems, giving students more responsibility, change the culture of copying?

Martel doesn’t think so. He has been teaching for 41 years, and is that special breed, a faculty whistleblower. Reporters like me adore teachers like him. Principals, on the other hand, often want to strangle them.

Over several years Martel has unearthed credible evidence that D.C. high schools routinely let more students graduate than are entitled to do so. He has been complaining lately about lax enforcement of credit rules for summer school and after-school courses. A former principal, perhaps fed up with something Martel did, tried and failed four years ago to take his AP classes away from him.

Such disputes between teachers and administrators are not uncommon. But questioning a teacher’s approach to cheating may be going too far. Just three weeks ago Martel found a student who had gotten a copy of an essay test he gave earlier in the day. Fortunately he had different questions for that student’s class. Wilson High is a high-performing school, full of clever and resourceful young people. Its teachers need all the help they can get.

Read Jay's blog every day at

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By Jay Mathews  | March 21, 2010; 10:00 PM ET
Categories:  Metro Monday  | Tags:  creating an expectation that students will cheat, principal and teacher clash over cheating prevention, student cheating  
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i do many of the same things... but I wait until I have suspected cheating before I do.

I get to about october every year.

Posted by: someguy100 | March 19, 2010 8:10 PM | Report abuse

The principal's response was good except that sometimes you are testing facts and can give short answer tests or quizzes to find out if they got the material. Then you should probably make it difficult to copy the answers. He's right, you can have thought provoking tests, however, the kids do cheat sometimes, not because they are "expected" to, though. I don't buy the whole atmosphere where they are expected to cheat thing. I think they would be more likely to cheat if they think you are not watching.

Posted by: celestun100 | March 19, 2010 8:13 PM | Report abuse

Jay, there is something sad in how you look at this. Whenever a teacher who teaches AP has a problem with an administrator or the system you slant towards that teacher. When a teacher who teaches the other end does you fail to give the same deference. That common attitude is the root of a lot of the problems in today's education.

Posted by: mamoore1 | March 19, 2010 9:05 PM | Report abuse


Mr. Martel is an AP teacher (although I am not sure that this conversation is about an AP class).

I'm sorry to say that teachers have learned that most teenage kids will cheat given the opportunity, and many of them feel no ethical issues about it.

I've had tests stolen from inside my desk, an extra copy taken by a student in one class who gave it to kids in a later class (that one didn't work so well for the kids involved), and more copying of tests and homeworks then I can shake a stick at. This doesn't even count the times kids have gotten away with it without me knowing.

I agree that more rigorous assessments are preferred, but sometimes you are testing something simple (like whether or not the students did the assigned reading) and don't need something complicated.

Posted by: Wyrm1 | March 19, 2010 9:29 PM | Report abuse

It is the duty of the teacher/professor to ensure the security of the test. The teacher in this case exercised reasonable methods to maintain the integrity of the test. However, the latter example of a student somehow having a copy of an essay test given earlier in the day is concerning. Tho' the principal had reasonable expectations for thorough testing of knowledge, missed the boat here since some tests can be more brief in nature in order to let both teacher and student know where they stand on lessons learned. The principal should think of this teacher's method as something like putting up a bit of a fence to hinder students straying toward an "attractive nuisance." Honor should be revered and expected, but.... reality happens, thus preventative measures.

Posted by: shadwell1 | March 19, 2010 10:25 PM | Report abuse

It is the duty of the teacher/professor to ensure the security of the test. The teacher in this case exercised reasonable methods to maintain the integrity of the test. However, the latter example of a student somehow having a copy of an essay test given earlier in the day is concerning. Tho' the principal had reasonable expectations for thorough testing of knowledge, missed the boat here since some tests can be more brief in nature in order to let both teacher and student know where they stand on lessons learned. The principal should think of this teacher's method as something like putting up a bit of a fence to hinder students straying toward an "attractive nuisance." Honor should be revered and expected, but.... reality happens, thus preventative measures.

Posted by: shadwell1 | March 19, 2010 10:27 PM | Report abuse


My point was not about cheating. Cheating is common, teenagers test boundaries, teacher need strong firewalls. the administrator in question is somewhere between silly and naive. I wanted to bring to Jay's attention how AP teachers are some how more legitimate than teachers who work with students less motivated. Both groups of students are important. One scores way lower on standardized testing. If the future is not that all teachers try to flee weaker students in order to not get ceder falled, than people with a megaphone such as Jay need to alter their outlook.

Posted by: mamoore1 | March 20, 2010 1:04 AM | Report abuse

This is all well and good, Jay, but what's the follow-up to your story from 3 and a half years ago? I see that Dr. Tarason retired at the end of the 2006-2007 school year and went to Western Middle School in Hagerstown, MD.

Please don't tease us like this.

Posted by: edlharris | March 20, 2010 1:33 AM | Report abuse

I had a student in a small tutoring group cheat on a test once. She did it right in front of me. She had the same answer as the girl she was sitting next to for about 18 out of 20 questions.

I tried to explain that the probability of that was so tiny it might as well be zero. But she didn't know anything about probabilities or the binomial distribution, so she couldn't understand.

I don't know which part is sadder: the cheating or the stupidity.

Posted by: steve10c | March 20, 2010 4:27 AM | Report abuse

“Instead, I would prefer that teachers use more rigorous assessments when possible, that require written responses and higher levels of thinking. In addition to being more challenging and requiring a sophisticated skill set, these types of assessments are also more difficult for students to copy.”


They are also more difficult and time-consuming for a teacher to evaluate and grade, particularly when there are 30 (!) kids in the class.

Posted by: trace1 | March 20, 2010 7:30 AM | Report abuse

The point of my earlier post is that perhaps the root of the conflict between Martel and Cahall is that the latter would like the teacher design tests that require more in-depth written responses, and the teacher is resisting. There may be more to the story.

Posted by: trace1 | March 20, 2010 7:56 AM | Report abuse

If you're shocked by 30, then you probably aren't involved in education.

High school teachers usually have to keep grades and records for 150-200 students.

If an exam takes 10 minutes to grade, it could take a teacher 25-30 hours to grade all the exams. That's why you can't have the in depth assessments we all know are better.

Posted by: someguy100 | March 20, 2010 11:29 AM | Report abuse

The issue of high school student ethics is just one of the canaries in our society. In the last several weeks the government and economy of Greece has nearly collapsed due to rapant "cheating" in how they were hiding their debt levels. Just this week an exhaustive 2500 page report on Lehman Brothers basically indicated that all kinds of malfeasance was being used to avoid acknowledging the impact of their business practices. One of the most significant criticisms of NCLB is that it causes teachers and principals to "cheat" or at least manage the results. In the last several months we have had kids breaking in to the school grading system to change their grades, honestly could that have taken less time than studying on a few tests? This problem is rampant in our society. The principle is right in the respect that we are not exactly laying down a social norm of honesty. This is a wider problem, one that schools can help with, but one that each of us as citzen needs to think and act on. How many of us are less than honest with our workplace or at home. How many of us impress on our children that honesty on a test is more important than getting the A or getting into Harvard? How many of us do say to our children you are cheating yourself when you cheat. These are wider social ethics that have to be addressed.

Posted by: Brooklander | March 20, 2010 11:35 AM | Report abuse

I suppose that we also should not have referees in sports because that would be creating the expectation of players not following the rules.

Posted by: williamhorkan | March 20, 2010 12:07 PM | Report abuse

It's not well known now but until quite recently a machinist was judged on the quality of the tools in his tool box. Since machinists were capable of making their own tools an easy way to judge a machinists skill and energy was to see the quantity, quality and diversity of tools he could carry with him.

It seems odd that no one thinks it unusual that teachers are still stuck at the same level of individual craftsmanship with all the lack of uniformity and the poor productivity that results.

A pretty straightforward piece of software ought to be able to generate tests that are functionally identical but individual and that would pretty much put an end to cheating. It would also put an end to teachers having to take the expedient course of handing out identical tests to all students.

But this is public education for intents and purposes. Efficiency and effectiveness are foreign concepts that have to be forced on the institution from outside there being no inherent reason to pursue either.

Posted by: allenm1 | March 20, 2010 1:04 PM | Report abuse


My apologies. I misinterpreted what you were saying.

Based on Martel's past whistleblowing regarding grades and other issues at Wilson, I suspect that the conflict has little to do with grading policies and more to do with other things.

Posted by: Wyrm1 | March 20, 2010 4:32 PM | Report abuse

The principal's response to Martel sounds like it is ripped straight out of a recent pedagogy textbook. There is something to demonstrating to students that teachers respect and trust them, but this doesn't mean that a teacher has to behave dumbly.

I guess my real question is how Martel presents the issue of cheating in class. Does he talk about it at all? Does he taunt students with the security measures that he uses on his exams? Do students even know that they are getting different copies of the same exam? I think it is entirely possible for a teacher to convince students that they are trusted, and thus that they ought to respect the trust placed in them, while also being cautious and using security measures on exams. Part of this can involve more open-ended questions that require individual thought to answer, but part can also involve what Martel and many other teachers already do, such as shuffling exam questions and pages to make copying more difficult.

Posted by: blert | March 22, 2010 4:59 AM | Report abuse

If Mr. Martel is an AP US History teacher then he has a responsibility to give his students multiple choice tests frequently because 50% of their AP exam score comes from the multiple choice section. And if Mr. Cahall doesn't think multiple choice questions in APUSH are rigorous, I've love to see him take a stab at them. "Rigorous" is just another buzzword these days that's just reflective of how much current education-speak the principal has been imbibing. No doubt Michelle Rhee is eating this up.

Posted by: postachild | March 22, 2010 5:06 AM | Report abuse

Unless things have changed considerably since I retired after teaching AP, the US History test has a multiple choice component as well as extended written responses. The teacher would be irresponsible to foresake multiple choice questions as the principal seems to imply. Of all courses, AP virtually requires teaching to the test. Additionally, AP testing itself uses extensive "anti-cheating" strategies.

Posted by: gdodge13 | March 22, 2010 6:20 AM | Report abuse

It is a classic example of the Peter Principle for someone as out of touch with reality...but totally able to unethically misapply pedagogical rise to the level of principal in a large urban high school.

Mr. Cahall has an almost perfect grasp of the one-size-fits-all bureaucratic mindset. He also is an unethical individual. He does not understand that there is a place for a variety of test formats..including multiple choice tests. He is unethical for misusing pedagogical theory to lower the evaluation ratings...remember that issue arose in an evaluation observation...of a teacher he dislikes.

Posted by: kronberg | March 22, 2010 6:47 AM | Report abuse

My teachers in HS (mainly) & college used to do this. The best of them told us they were doing it to "reduce temptation". A few even lectured on it the day before the tests. So that was what my view on it evolved into. More that these measures helped me act in my own best interests in being the person I wanted to be. I don't look on them as an assumption of bad character or anything like that. It's more of the opposite, in that it helped me make good decisions under pressure.

There are other ways to cheat, the real trick is choosing not to.

Posted by: Nymous | March 22, 2010 7:18 AM | Report abuse

I think that the principal's reasoning is flawed. While he states that trusting the students is the best way to avoid cheating, he need to look no farther than UVa to see this is not the case. UVa supposedly has an honor code that prevents people from cheating, yet countless times professors have uncovered evidence that a majority of students will cheat if given the chance.

Just do a google search for "UVA cheating honor" to see the latest example.

Posted by: ad_astra | March 22, 2010 7:29 AM | Report abuse

I am a former h.s. history teacher who taught both AP and non-AP versions of U.S. history (and later worked in central administration). I suspect that the principal isn't giving this kind of subject-matter feedback to math and science teachers. Unfortunately it's been my experience that many building administrators take greater latitude in dabbling (or meddling) in the liberal arts curriculum.
Certainly short-answer objective quizzes and tests are an appropriate part of ANY history class.
By the way, I'd like to add that it is a distressing aspect of modern high school life that students simply do not attach much significance to cheating. Every adult who's spent time in the classroom knows this. Even the honest ones will not rat out the cheaters. It's considered part of everyday school life (along with the equally distressing prevalence of casual profanity). I really enjoyed teaching teenagers but was amazed at the cluelessness of many parents as to cheating and swearing, and their reluctance to accept that information from teachers.

Posted by: novaescapee | March 22, 2010 7:37 AM | Report abuse

Cahall sounds like a real Rhee-bot, spouting that stuff about expectations and higher-order thinking as a way to justify lowering IMPACT scores for a whistle-blower teacher. Clearly after 41 years in the classroom, Martel is not afraid to speak up against such nonsense.

If you want to do a little more investigation, Jay, how about you ask Principal Cahall if he admonishes all Wilson teachers who use anti-cheating techniques. Seems to me that if he’s against this, he would make it established school policy, and not just something that pops up on select IMPACT evaluations.

Posted by: efavorite | March 22, 2010 7:37 AM | Report abuse

I don't understand the part about the IMPACT evaluation leading to this issue arising in the principal's comments. Does IMPACT encourage teachers to allow students easy access to other students' answers? (i.e. cheating?) Does IMPACT discourage anti-cheating methods? Interesting if it does. Maybe that's one way to raise standardized test scores!

There were many great comments to this article today. The article made me question the Wilson principal's ability to perform "reality checks".

Posted by: dccitizen1 | March 22, 2010 7:56 AM | Report abuse

Wow 41 years of teaching...

He is evident that he has cheated the act of NOT being fired or has he?

Posted by: PowerandPride | March 22, 2010 9:15 AM | Report abuse

I want to congratulate Eric Martel for having "staying power." I remember the "old"days at Cardozo and Shaw Junior High and I admire the teachers who speak up! Having l50 students a day is no picnic. Any teacher who can last as long as Eric has lasted really loves working with children because going head to head with the bureaucracy takes guts and teachers will be punished (in all systems)Eric is a great teacher! The Wilson students, parents and bureaucrats are really lucky to have Eric Martel!

Posted by: judithclaire1939 | March 22, 2010 9:44 AM | Report abuse

Sorry, Erich, I left the "h" off your name in the post above! Do the newer teachers still read, Teaching As A Subversive Activity- 1969 Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner - Chapter I Crap Detecting- Ernest Hemingway is asked about the essential ingredient needed to be a great writer and he responds -"In order to be a great writer a person must have a built-in,shockproof crap detector." Our students need to develop these survival techniques! Congratulations Erich!

Posted by: judithclaire1939 | March 22, 2010 10:18 AM | Report abuse

When I was chair of a college English department some years back,I was notified whenever a student was penalized in a class for plagiarizing or cheating. The highest incidence of either was among honors students. This continued year after year. In some semesters, NOBODY was reported except honors students. Were their teachers the only ones checking? I doubt it.

I'm just saying. . . .

Posted by: jlhare1 | March 22, 2010 10:57 AM | Report abuse

I believe that handing out different test forms is a sensible statement that cheating IS NOT ACCEPTED rather than one that encourages students to see themselves as cheaters.

When I was a teenager, in a town and time faraway, some kids in third period classes spent more time memorizing sequences like "abcbdecca," taught them by first period students, than they ever invested in reading about mitosis, e.g.

As I understand it, the trend has only worsened. And I suggest that this is due, at least in part, to a sad expectation on the part of many students that what they learn in the classroom -- Mr. Martel's excepted, BTW; he did a fine job of preparing our daughter for AP US History -- has no more value than a series of meaningless letters.

My daughter and a friend were once accused of cheating, because they were the only two in the classroom who got the RIGHT answers to several questions. She and her friend had studied together from the textbook, while their classmates repeated the wrong answer taught by the teacher.

I don't know if that teacher is still at Wilson, and to be fair it was before Pete Cahall joined the staff. But this teacher was widely known at the time to be worse than useless to the students and yet tolerated. Meanwhile, teachers who are really trying to make a difference for their students often meet with roadblocks born of slogans, rather than ideas that are based on youth needs.

Posted by: vspatz | March 22, 2010 11:48 AM | Report abuse

I make no secret of my admiration for many AP teachers, but I don't think that affects my choice of teachers to profile. If these same facts applied to a story about a non-AP teacher, almost all of whom also encounter cheating, I would have written it, because it is such a great example of a clash between two divergent views on this issue. My last book didn't have any AP or IB teachers in it. My series of pieces on Shaw Middle school last year didn't have any teachers in it. Most of the teachers I have been writing about in my series of stories on the IMPACT evaluation system don't teach AP.

And for edlharris: I thought I told the rest of the story with uncharacteristic economy and clarity. Tarason tried and failed to take Martel's AP classes away from him. Being that I am exactly two weeks from qualifying for Medicare, I don't exactly remember how that happened. I think Tarason just gave up in the face of one of the most persistent teachers on the planet. But I will ask Martel to remind me of the details and I will post them as a comment here as soon as possible.

And I think PowerandPride is quite right. I don't understand either how Martel has managed not to be fired, but as I said, he is a strong guy and administrators often shrink from attacking someone like that. (And he is not afraid of talking to journalists, which I personally think is an exemplary character trait.)

This is a very good discussion by the way. Keep it up.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | March 22, 2010 11:57 AM | Report abuse

Former physical education teacher and coach Cahall, isn't the experienced expert. His success depended on playing against type, pretending to be keen on contemporary notions of accountability and performance monitoring in MoCo schools for a year.
In sports and athletics he knows counting repetitions at given weight, who wins and loses in head-to-head practice match-ups, and the readings on stop-watches.
The soft-stuff --pep talks, support, one-on-one counseling of his players, and who starts -- was all "unaccountable."

The greatest irony here is the attention Cahall has given to preparation of students for the DC CAS. He's assigned an assistant principal and aide as much as half time to seeing the right students get the right prep for that multiple choice test and to the FIVE pretests designed to predict and prepare performance. An experienced teacher constructs classroom settings so he doesn't lose scarce time fixing consequences of compromised test security. The principal directs major school resources and student time to test-prep.

I'll bet Martel wonders about how much / little care is given to cheating on the DC CAS settings, where the principal's evaluation-- not the student's -- is on the line.

Posted by: incredulous | March 22, 2010 11:58 AM | Report abuse

Seems to be a lot of assumptions being made by both the author and a number of respondents about the principal and teacher. mostly it seems to be that as a teacher he should be on some pedistal (especially since he seems to be disgrunteled)and as an administrator he is obviously an automatic idiot. while several respondents assume that the teacher is using a nice mix of multiple choice/short answer and free form long answer tools in his tests, that is not shown in this article. it might just as easily be that multiple guess questions is all he uses and the principle is trying to get the guy to mix it up a bit (like the AP tests his students will hopefully be taking in the near future). i don't know that one way or tge other, but neither do any of you. you just make these assumptions...

Posted by: dhall987 | March 22, 2010 12:06 PM | Report abuse

dhall1987 - Some people here are talking from their personal knowledge of the principal, the teacher and the school and others are talking from their own experiences as teachers.

It seems to me that you're the one making assumptions - and they're negative ones. No one but you called the teacher disgruntled or the principal an idiot.

Posted by: efavorite | March 22, 2010 12:26 PM | Report abuse

Can we stop praising Mr. Martel as some noble whistle blower? As a former student of his, he was a decent teacher to be sure. He was not however some unending source of virtue Mr. Mathews makes him out to be. I have a few suggestion if Mr. Martel wants to curb cheating; all drawn from experiences I had in his classroom.
1. If Mr. Martel is concerned about students copying off of each; don't take naps during class. It's easier to catch us if you are awake.
2. If Mr. Martel is concerned about students sharing tests between classes, how about he not pad lock his door and showing up late on a regular basis after lunch? This would leave less time for us to discuss earlier morning tests.
3. If Mr. Martel wants to make sure we all get fair grades, how about keeping track of our actual work. I remember specifically going to parent teacher conferences with him with a notebook filled with graded homework he forgot to log (To be fair, the notebook was his suggestion to his students because apparently such things happened frequently to him).
These are just suggestion to Mr. Martel from a former student.

Posted by: sisaacs81 | March 22, 2010 2:28 PM | Report abuse

I wonder if this principal applies the same logic about creating expectations for students in other areas, such as in sex ed. By Cahan's logic, we should be sending students the message that we expect them not to have sex, and since information about condoms, birth control, etc., operates on the presumption that they will have sex, we ought to take the abstinence-only approach.

The same logical principle seems to be at work in both cases, but I suspect that people's reactions to it will be very different when the subject changes from cheating to sex.

Posted by: blert | March 22, 2010 2:40 PM | Report abuse

For edlharris: Here is Erich Martel's account of how he got his AP classes back. (He did lose them for a year. I forgot that part.)------

The principal would not change his mind. Supt. Janey refused to intervene,
thus distancing himself from what was "the principal's decision" - even
though he had authorized the IG investigation that ultimately confirmed my
reports, when finally released in April 2007. As a result, I did not
teach AP courses for the school year 2006-07. It was widely understood to
be retaliation, though that was denied. It felt like a public slap in the

Most of my colleagues viewed this as an attempt to humiliate me and force
me to resign/retire. Since I am a teacher first and an AP teacher second,
and since my reports of manipulated records were made with the intention of
correcting management abuses, which I intended to see through to
resolution, it would have set a very bad example, if I had just quit when
the going got a bit rough. And there was no way I could betray the
tremendous moral support I received from my colleagues and from many
parents and students.

It created a division in the school and department. Worst of all, it made
it impossible to establish the collaboration that would have existed, had
the sections been shared. The teacher who replaced me, nonetheless, did an excellent job. In June
2007, Dr. Tarason suddenly announced his retirement. Jackie Williams was
appointed Interim Principal as Wilson entered its year of restructuring
planning. She assigned me to teach two AP US History sections, which I
have continued to teach along with other social studies subjects since then.


Posted by: Jay Mathews | March 22, 2010 3:23 PM | Report abuse

for dhall987: Notice near the end of the column I report him giving an essay exam.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | March 22, 2010 3:26 PM | Report abuse

Let's see if we can't stop the "us vs. them" mentality in the schools. I remember in high school no one would blow the whistle on a cheater or any other rule-breaker because 1) there was a feeling that the teachers were the enemy (or at least analagous to prison guards), 2) there was a feeling that some teachers designed test questions just to trip us up, with awkwardly worded questions, minor details misstated just to see if anyone noticed, and irrelevent questions, 3) we felt a lot of tests and assignments were just "make work" and had nothing to do with learning the subject, and 4)everyone felt the name of the game was just to get through the test so we got the credit we needed for college, since we knew we were unlikely ever to see the material again.

(Special note to trace1: the next time you find yourself saying, "In my day," remember that for those of us entering school in the 1950s, 30 was a SMALL class!)

Posted by: sideswiththekids | March 22, 2010 4:38 PM | Report abuse

“I have high expectations for my students in their academic performance, behavior, and morals. My educational philosophy is grounded in the honor code. I trust my students unless they give me reason not to, and in my experience this has been effective.”

This is stupid on some many levels. His philosophy is that students will not cheat if they are permitted to cheat and if you try to prevent them from cheating they will cheat.

Posted by: Jimof1913 | March 22, 2010 4:50 PM | Report abuse

Off-topic alert!

postachild wrote:
"Rigorous" is just another buzzword these days that's just reflective of how much current education-speak the principal has been imbibing. "

Has anyone else noticed that every time the higher-ups talk about "increasing rigor," it is followed by an immediate dumbing-down of the material? Sometimes it feels downright Orwellian...

Posted by: highschoolteacher | March 22, 2010 5:37 PM | Report abuse

Maybe there is more to this story than meets the eye, but the article was about two different philosophies on cheating. The teacher should have different types of tests, but should also try to prevent cheating. If the kids don't think the teacher knows some of them will cheat and it is not fair to the other students. If the principle wants the teacher to use different assessment methods, he should say so and not tie it in with the cheating issue. Cheating is not fair and shouldn't be allowed, if possible.

I don't have anything against principals, but when I hear that this guy is suggesting that the expectations are causing the kids to cheat, I think he's wrong. I thought that as well at one time and the kids were cheating like crazy! You have to prevent it. Act pre-emptively!

Posted by: celestun100 | March 22, 2010 6:33 PM | Report abuse

I do not like multiple choice tests. They do not knowledge of a student only his/her good guesing ability. What the teacher was doing is correct for multiple choice tests. The should have said, " For multiple type tests what you are doing is o.k. I will like you to give test which requires a comprehensive answer, instead".

Posted by: shrikrishan | March 22, 2010 7:12 PM | Report abuse

Many great comments already posted here. For those interested in this issue of academic integrity, let me suggest the book _Predictably Irrational_, by behavioral economist Dan Ariely (very entertaining talk on this subject at,, by the way). Ariely's research suggests that honor codes are effective and should be pursued, but also that we need to be actively reminding people that honor is to be considered. Having read and spoken with Ariely, I would say that he shows that principal Cahall's laissez faire approach is naive.

People behave more honestly when they are reminded -- by a variety of methods -- that honesty is expected and can/will be monitored. Don't just have an honor code; make your students acknowledge their awareness of it on a regular basis. Don't just expect them to be "good"; demonstrate that you (teacher) care about adherence to expected standards.

I've spent a lot of time on honor code issues over the past four years, which has really helped me appreciate the complexity and importance of developing a system driven by integrity. I tell my classes -- and I believe completely -- that my monitoring of assessments is dedicated most of all to supporting those who want to behave honestly without being disadvantaged. A corrupt or indifferent system breeds indifference and corruption. I condemn both.

Posted by: carlrosin | March 22, 2010 11:00 PM | Report abuse

It is SO easy to randomize the order of questions on a test. It can easily be done in Excel and all the teacher needs to do is print out a different copy for each student.

Just about everyone in my college (Virginia Tech) cheated. On tests occasionally, but mostly with homework which was copied all the time. Everyone had copies of last year's homework with the correct answers to copy.

I don't actually think it's a big deal though. The real reason we go to school is to learn to be successful in the business world. Cheating without getting caught is actually a really big part of that! It's about politics, subversion, stealing from competitors, etc. All without getting caught.

Posted by: antispy | March 22, 2010 11:38 PM | Report abuse

I totally agree with the Principal on this one, especially since it was an AP class. Why can't assessment for younger history students be more authentic too? Multiple choice tests have their place, but elementary students are bombarded by fact-based multiple choice tests -- guess what teachers teach to? Instead of developing higher level understanding, critical thinking, and relational thinking, the temptation is to limit teaching to lower level facts -- Nat Turner was (A)an abolitionist; (B) a patriot; (C) led a violent slave uprising; (D) led a non-violent slave uprising. A higher-level constructed response test might require students to explain the similarities and differences of Nat Turner, John Brown, and Harriet Tubman. A follow up question might require students to explain how white plantation owners felt about these three people and how their feelings about them led to the Civil War. Open-ended questions give students opportunities to construct their own understandings. Unfortunately, a significant portion of students don't have the reading and writing skills needed to construct a response to this kind of question. That's why multiple choice tests are so over-used. Teaching to multiple choice facts is totally boring and uninspired, but what's the alternative to drill when children are required to recall so much content? School administrators keep a sharp eye on the data and encourage the use of computer-based assessment. The Principal featured in your article is in the minority, in my opinion.

Posted by: dannykurland1 | March 23, 2010 5:57 AM | Report abuse

Well, given that it was an AP Class, and 50% of the AP exam is multiple choice, I suspect the teacher was giving them questions in the format that they will see on the exam. (They are also not just fact based questions).

I do know that AP History teachers try to give both multiple choice AND open ended questions (specifically Document Based Questions) specifically to prepare students for the AP exam.

Posted by: Wyrm1 | March 23, 2010 6:50 AM | Report abuse

“You are creating an expectation that students will cheat. By creating that expectation, they will rise to your expectation.”

How did Mark Twain put it: "Some ideas are so stupid that only an intellectual can believe in them."

Something close to that.

Posted by: NeverLeft | March 23, 2010 1:57 PM | Report abuse

Some technical glitch in our system prevented Erich Martel from posting his own comment, so I doing it for him at his request:

Great discussion!
I am the Wilson HS teacher featured by Jay in this article.
I want to publicly thank Jay for airing this issue and for publicizing the action of a former principal in 2006. When I notified Jay that he was taking away the AP US History classes assigned to me following my report to the DC Inspector General and media that many Wilson HS 2006 graduates had been improperly certified for graduation, he immediately asked for my account, interviewed the principal, school officials and parents and described the situation in considerable detail.
These days it is often difficult to find widely-read journalists who consider the views and experiences of teachers just as valid and important as those of other public school stakeholders. As teachers, we greatly value journalists who go beyond the sound-bites and the "expert” opinions of the many celebrity “rock stars” of the education "industry" to listen to those of us who meet and teach students on a daily basis.

Since some of the discussion in response to Jay’s article has centered on the two-part test I showed the principal, I will describe both parts and why both are valid evaluations of students' knowledge AND their mastery of analytical skills. The two parts of each test I give are:
- Multiple choice questions (usually 40-50), some taken from previously released AP exams; and
- An essay, either a DBQ (document based question) or a free response question (in either case, modeled on the national exam).

This enables me to prepare students for the test formats they will encounter on the national exam (this year, May 7th) while testing their mastery of the units covered in the test.

I also showed my principal one of my daily quizzes, given at the start of class: five to ten short, factual questions requiring either a fill-in or a very short answer. These quizzes are designed to check whether students did the assigned reading for the day. This was the smaller font quiz that Jay referred to.

Although my principal doesn’t specifically describe the test that he seems to view as insufficiently "rigorous" or "challenging" and that doesn't test "higher levels of thinking" or "sophisticated skills," he would have to be referring to the multiple choice test that I showed him. Since his comments are similar to the criticisms most commonly directed at objective, multiple choice tests, it’s worth explaining why the multiple choice questions on AP US History exams actually satisfy the higher, analytical skills that he properly notes are important.

Those familiar with the multiple choice questions on AP US History exams (true of most AP subject exams) understand that they test many analytical skills, in this case, skills of historical thinking, including:
- Interpreting the logic of a question;
- Understanding the internal logic and patterns of historical events and eras;
- Comparing and contrasting five possible answers (which may be from the same historical period or different periods);
- Understanding cause and effect, including unintended consequences, etc.

Students who do poorly on the AP US History multiple choice questions generally do poorly on the essays. The reason is simple: both tests require the student to recall and interpret relevant historical information, i.e. “facts,” and make informed judgments about their connection to each other and to the question.

While it’s true that essay questions are much harder to copy, teachers must still take precautions. A few days after my meeting with the principal, a teacher brought me a history essay that he had taken from a student who was writing it during his class. The student had learned from someone in one of my earlier classes what essay questions I had given and had written out the complete point by point response to one of the questions, obviously intending to submit it, as if written during the essay portion of the test. As Jay reports, I had already drawn up a new set of essays questions as a precaution.

One of my colleagues offered the following advice: When administering an essay test and the students know in advance with the general or specific topics will be, require students to use paper you provide.
I will share additional thoughts on the question of honor codes and “expectations” in a later post.
Erich Martel
Wilson HS

Posted by: Jay Mathews | March 24, 2010 12:56 PM | Report abuse

Cheating is a way of life--just ask a few congressmen and senators. Kids are no different so vigilence is important. Nothing is tainted by putting restrictions of availability of others' intellectual knowledge.

Posted by: goodjuli20031 | March 24, 2010 4:06 PM | Report abuse

Martel has recently dared to suggest there are significant differences in the quality of short-answer questions!!
Are there ever. Whatever stories can be found about shoddy work that may slip into early stages of ETS (or ACT) work for the College Board in creating items, they are nothing compared to the crap that dominates the exams such as the ones DCPS buys for test-prep. Maybe Principal Cahall is to be forgiven for being much more familiar with the latter, and thinking Martel was using items designed to be readily taught to, the better to generate annual improvement in NCLB-mandated school-level test scores.
Price competition is fierce, glitz in reporting distracts educational administrators from asking about test-item construction and validation before signing contracts for system-wide adoption, and we are living thirty years after Congress last gave serious attention to test-fairness and test-quality. It is past time for consumer protection here, too.

Posted by: incredulous | March 25, 2010 1:43 AM | Report abuse

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