Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

Could Making Standardized Tests Less Secure Stop Teacher Cheating?


A student taking a test at a California high school.

Here’s a thought:  If teacher cheating scandals in Atlanta and elsewhere are the result of keeping standardized tests top secret, why not put test items “out in the sun instead of trying to lock them up in more and more secure rooms”?

That’s the proposal Stanford economist and education expert Eric Hanushek offered on the EducationNext blog.

His idea:  Create a massive bank of thousands of possible test items, make those questions public, let teachers offer feedback, and then pick a few at random for the actual test.

Hanushek leans into the criticism that this would encourage teaching to a standardized test. ‘Let em!’ he implies, since an extensive question bank would cover the full range of the curriculum, and picking them at random for computerized testing would eliminate risks for testing security breaches.

What are the potential benefits? Hanushek writes:

This testing permits accurate assessments at varying levels while lessening test burden from excessive questions that provide little information on individual student performance.

Such assessments would not be limited to minimally proficient levels that are the focus of today’s tests, and thus they could provide useful information to districts that find current testing too easy.

Students would be given a random selection of questions, and the answers would go directly into the computer – bypassing the erasure checks, the comparison of responses with other students, and the like.

The potential drawbacks? Hanushek notes testing companies wouldn’t like it, since they’ve grown comfortable making differing versions of the same test every year for different states.

This doesn’t look like a direction where Indiana’s testing gurus are headed. If anything, they’re looking for ways to tighten testing security, requiring all teachers to sign ethics pledges before testing.


  • Kyler Laird

    FAA (aviation) exams are given this way. The questions (and answers) are public and, indeed, there are companies that do weekend crash courses to shove them all into a student’s head. (I took one.) With a large enough database, it shouldn’t make a significant difference that the questions are available; the knowledge is still required.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for the comment, Kyler! I’m curious, is the FAA test computerized too?

      I never knew this about the FAA test. Do you think there could be people for whom this knowledge is kinda frightening?? I mean, we’re not talking about grade-school arithmetic, we’re talking about flying commercial airliners, etc.

  • Griddle

    Of course testing companies wouldn’t like it; they’re making a killing!
    I also want to point out that the vast majority of teachers wouldn’t think of cheating. A few bad apples make the entire profession look bad. Shame on them.

    • Anonymous

      Appreciate your comment, Griddle… If a few bad apples are to blame here, is it necessary to embrace computerized testing?

  • Teacher Tom

    Transparency is always a good thing in education. What are we trying to hide? And written tests are an antiquated way to take standardized test (which are slow, filled with mistakes, and easy to cheat on).

  • Mark

    This is how it was always done in the Air Force. The students each submitted 50 questions, with answers, and the teachers checked the questions and answers against the ciriculum, before they were added to the database. Then the questions were selected at random from the database and one of a kind tests were generated and passed out for testing.

  • Mark Molter

    I wish I could trust people enough to say that teachers signing an ethics pledge will solve the problem. I think having the answers public would be beneficial to everyone. I think something that might be interesting to add would be an oral examination. In many countries they have a written test and then an oral examination with a panel of 3 teachers 2 from the school and one from another school. The questions are usually pretty general and the teachers can give them some prompting to help. The kids either know it or they don’t especially in foreign languages. It was usually done with older students. It would be interesting to see how that might impact the students.

  • Kstoehr

    As a teacher having the assessment of material available to me certainly increases my effectiveness. If I know what kind of question my students may have to answer I can prepare them–I’m not teaching to the test I’m teaching them the material that the state has asked me to teach. I’m teaching them how to study, how to be successful, and even how to jump through hoops that college applications, employers, and the government always seems to place in front of them.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for your comment! Since I’m into playing devil’s advocate today, are you “teaching them how to study” when critical-thinking-heavy college courses ask students to do so much more than understand a large body of multiple-choice questions? Of course you can address this in other areas of your teaching, but shouldn’t students have to learn to think critically through standardized testing?

  • Josh

    This goes back to the point of a standardized test: is it to test knowledge or critical thinking skills? If the tests were meant to see how students can think on their feet, then having all the questions published beforehand defeats this purpose. Memorizing test questions and answers also doesn’t necessarily count as acquiring knowledge.

  • bilgewater

    This is an interesting idea. I hope we hear a lot of pro and con sides to this argument. I read about the Atlanta scandal last year, but I didn’t spend so much time reading into the details of what happened in the aftermath. A possible topic for this forum: what factors led to the cheating scandal in the first place? Was the need for high scores so great that the jobs of administrators and teachers were at stake if scores were not high enough? Where did the pressure to have high scores come from?

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