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Schools do homework on catching cheaters

Editor’s note: Last week, in Part One, we discussed the prevalence of cheating and the difficulty schools have in catching cheaters. Part Two, this week, discusses various methods schools use to curb the practice, including a unique “Report Cheating” website. Next week, we’ll look at “Why smart kids cheat.”

La Jolla High School’s staff decided several years ago to take a pro-active stance against cheating, forming a committee composed of teachers, parents and students to tackle the problem.

“We catch the irregular person, but the question is what are we missing that we don’t know about,” LJHS Principal Dana Shelburne said.

The committee investigated the extent of the problem and looked into what’s being done at the college level to curtail cheating. Shelburne said they discussed what it means to cheat and what it means to have authorized collaboration.

Group work, it was determined, must be specifically approved by the teacher. “You can’t turn in somebody else’s work as your own,” he said. Shelburne said the school pays to belong to an Internet-based plagiarism detection service called

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turnitin.com

that monitors the recycling of content. This site is used by other high schools as well.

“When they write essays, they submit them to the teacher via turnitin.com, and that service runs the paper through its database,” Shelburne said. The service can recognize any text from some other source, and if there’s a match it will identify the passage and the source.

Tip of the iceberg

Elloise Allen, assistant principal at Canyon Crest Academy in Carmel Valley, estimated that San Dieguito Union High School District schools catch 10 or fewer cheaters each year. Shelburne said he catches about half that. Both Allen and Shelburne said the number of kids caught represents the tip of the iceberg.

Allen said it was quiet this year at Canyon Crest, after last year’s major cheating scandal involving dozens of students, and she speculated on the reasons why.

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“You ask yourself if it’s because the teachers are being really pro-active about explaining to kids,” she said. “Or is it because kids are afraid? Or is it because kids are becoming more sophisticated in it?”

Shelburne said the number caught is so low because “it’s completely contingent upon a teacher catching the student in the act with something that’s tangible.”

To focus attention schoolwide on the matter and provide honest students with the ability to report cheaters anonymously, a new Web site was created last year at La Jolla High called

“Report Cheating.”

Addressing the issue

Bee Mittermiller, who was LJHS PTA president from 2006 to 2008, said so many parents wanted the issue addressed that the committee was formed to work on solutions, and the website was one idea.

“It has been a slow, painstaking process,” she wrote in an e-mail last year when the Web site’s pilot program began. “The idea behind this is to raise awareness of the problem and to allow students to alert individual teachers about the cheating methods going on without giving names. ...

“With a website, we are hopeful that the students who are thinking about cheating might reconsider if they know that other students are watching and have a tool available to inform teachers of cheating activity.”

Protecting the identity

The website does not ask for either the identity of the person reporting the activity nor of the cheater. “Students on the committee said if the students have to self-identify they will never report,” Shelburne said. “They don’t want to be seen as the snitch.”

Even the identity of the accused cheater is not disclosed on the site, because students could lie and falsely accuse someone.

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“We don’t know who sent it in and we don’t know the offending student, because we know that’s going nowhere,” Shelburne said. “So it’s a heads-up to the teacher that on that date somebody believes that some folks were cheating.”

The website asks what class the cheating occurred in, when, the number of students involved, what activity (test, quiz, homework, essay, project, lab, other), the method of cheating (advance copy of test, calculator, cell phone or texting, other technology, notes, discussion of test outside of class, plagiarism, talking during test, team-cheating), and why the student is reporting the incident (grade curve, it’s the right thing to do, fed up with cheating, trying to help the teacher, want to improve the school, respect for teacher, other).

Shelburne said kids are using the website, but the system is still being tweaked and it’s difficult to say if it’s made a difference yet.