Schools tackle growing practice of cheating

Editor’s note:

This is part I in a two-part series about the growing problem of high school cheating. Next week, in part II, we discuss La Jolla High School’s unique “Report Cheating” website and what else can be done to curb academic dishonesty.

Cheating in high school is as common an occurrence as adolescent acne — and has proven to be just as difficult to control. Intense competition for slots in highly selective colleges has contributed to the problem, expanding the practice to include high-achieving students when decades ago cheaters were mainly D students trying simply not to fail.

“I only cheat off of smart kids because I want to go to UCLA,” stated a student several years ago in the Torrey Pines High School yearbook.

In last year’s San Diego Jewish Academy yearbook, two pages were devoted to “The Art of Deception — Inventive Ways to Cheat.” Although content was often tongue-in-cheek (“shave answers in leg hair, learn Morse code, set up a smoke signal”), other comments rang true.

“I don’t usually cheat, but I was crammed for time. It was a last resort,” said one student who wrote terminology on her arm hidden under a jacket.

“I often have multiple tests a week, and it was hard for me to remember all the information,” said a 10th grade Advanced Placement history student who inserted a cheat sheet inside a pencil case pocket for a test.

High school students have progressed well beyond the tried and true methods of simply peeking at another student’s work or giving the test questions to students who have yet to take the test.

“We’ve caught very clever kids,” said La Jolla High School principal Dana Shelburne. “One had taken the label off a water bottle and put it through the printer with all the important stuff on there and then reattached it to the water bottle, so it looked for all the world like a water bottle. But if you tilted it the right way, you could look right in.”

Shelburne said technology has made it even more challenging for teachers to catch cheaters. “That makes it very difficult to know what’s going on because kids can text without looking,” he said.

Shelburne said one student sitting in the front row had his eyes on his teacher but his hands in his pockets while the teacher was lecturing on the importance of academic honesty. After class, he told her he had been texting and showed her what he had written: “I am talking about cheating with (the teacher).” Then he said, “See? I’m two feet in front of you and you didn’t even know.”

Local cheating scandal

A local cheating scandal last year in two Advanced Placement psychology classes that involved dozens of students at Canyon Crest Academy presented a challenge for staff at the San Dieguito Union High School District.

SDUHSD associate superintendent Rick Schmitt said two forms of cheating took place: those who shared notes and homework assignments and those who cheated on tests. Students who copied notes and plagiarized were easier to spot because the homework was identical from one to the next. But the test cheaters proved harder to identify.

It was determined, eventually, that one boy who took the class in the fall term allegedly gave or sold copies of the answers to students taking the same class in the spring term. The student, whose father is a criminal defense attorney, was a junior at the time and switched schools voluntarily, reportedly attending San Marcos High School for his senior year.

“We had enough evidence to suspend but not expel,” said Canyon Crest assistant principal Elloise Allen, who speculated that the family transferred him from Canyon Crest because “they could see possibilities of more evidence coming.”

Allen said she’s convinced more than one student was guilty of sharing prior tests but staff was unable to uncover definitive proof implicating anyone else.

Galling many Canyon Crest students this spring was discovering that this student had been accepted to UCLA for fall 2010.

“I’m not going to lie — I was upset,” said one CCA student. “I felt it was extremely unfair. Why should this person get accepted to a really good school? It feels like there were no consequences to his actions.”

The student, who asked not to be named, said the offender was a “very smart kid” who likely would have been accepted to UCLA anyway. “But I don’t think he deserves it for doing this,” the student said. “It’s dishonest.”

The student said it encourages cheating when hard-working, honest students see cheaters getting ahead. He said many of his classmates were also angry when they heard the news.

Consequences for cheating at San Dieguito schools do not include an “academic dishonesty” notation on the student’s transcript. “If it was noted on the transcript, it would save a lot of us the concern and stress about this,” said the CCA student, who added that he wouldn’t feel as frustrated if UCLA had been made aware of the offense and still accepted him.

Most colleges and universities do not ask on their application forms if students have ever cheated, been suspended or expelled. Some students believe colleges should ask, although they acknowledge that, without reference to any incidents on the student’s transcript, it’s easy to lie.

The Canyon Crest investigation determined that an estimated 50 percent of the students in one teacher’s two AP psychology classes — or about 40 to 45 students — were guilty of cheating. There were varying degrees of academic dishonesty: sharing the test and providing the answer keys, receiving those answers, sharing homework notes and collaborating on assignments that were meant to be completed independently.

Alice Cash, a 2009 CCA graduate who was not involved in the scandal and does not engage in cheating, said at the time that the discovery of such widespread cheating didn’t surprise her. “It goes on in every class,” she said. “There’s lots of peer pressure to cheat.”

Some students believe the kids who received the test questions and answers did not deserve to be punished.

“The students were not at fault,” commented one student in response to an article on the issue. “The reason that the students were able to cheat on the tests was because the teacher never changed the tests from year to year. This illustrates pure indolence on behalf of all the teachers of this generation who ignorantly cannot be bothered to create new tests from time to time.”

Discipline files

Schmitt said first-time offenders receive a zero on the assignment, quiz or test. If it’s a repeat offense, then the student may fail the course or be suspended for several days, with no chance to make up missed work. But there is no notation on transcripts, and all misbehavior is part of a discipline file that is kept confidential and “never sees the light of day,” he said.

San Dieguito’s policy “is typical of any cheating policy I’ve ever seen in the six different school districts I’ve worked in,” Schmitt said. He said the zero on the assignment, especially if it’s a final exam, can be a game-changer, sometimes lowering the final grade a full level, from an A to a B or a B to a C.

Consequences can be severe. Schmitt mentioned the case of a student years ago at Torrey Pines who failed a course after being caught cheating and had his acceptance to UC Berkeley rescinded.

Because the student at CCA last year who was caught distributing tests took the class in a prior term, there was no assignment, quiz or test to give him a zero for. He was suspended instead, Allen said, because “we felt that discipline-wise it was important to have a consequence.”

Both Allen and Schmitt agree that it can be difficult for honest students to see cheaters accepted into prestigious universities.

Schmitt said he understands their frustration and sympathizes. “I’d say (to students) ... if you’re bothered by it, then you have to help us,” he said. “Many times there’s that teenage code of silence, and it’s difficult to crack that culture.”

Most cheating occurs outside the classroom, Schmitt said, making it even more difficult to detect. “It doesn’t happen under the teacher’s nose, so it’s really hard to police that,” he said.

Schmitt said the schools need hard evidence to charge kids with cheating, which isn’t easy to get. “The burden of proof is pretty tough,” he said.

“Kids shut down ... and (are) not willing to talk,” Allen said. “They are so willing to close ranks. They’re willing to be upset that he got into a good university, and yet none of them were willing to come forward and say, ‘I know more information, I have more details, I have specifics.’”

Allen said the reluctance to speak up stems from social pressures. “Part of it is just a cultural piece that kids don’t tattle,” she said. “Kids are very much afraid of the social stigma. But we’re not a court of law where we can subpoena somebody and put them on trial. I don’t have to share my witness information with another kid.”

Schmitt said the discipline policy, which he calls progressive, is not meant to disqualify a student from college eligibility or to prevent a student from graduating. “Good kids make bad choices, and this is just another opportunity for us to help them mature and make better choices,” he said.

Private schools

Jeff Davis, principal of the Upper School at Carmel Valley’s San Diego Jewish Academy, echoed Schmitt’s remarks, saying, “The term I use is progressive discipline,” meaning that students are treated differently if there is a history of offenses.

“I’m not a zero tolerance guy,” Davis said. “You take into consideration, has this kid ever done that before and what was the nature of the offense.”

The cheating policy at the private Jewish Academy — and at Cathedral Catholic High School, another private high school in Carmel Valley — is similar to San Dieguito’s: a zero on the assignment for a first offense, with discretion to enforce suspension or other disciplinary action if it’s a multiple offense or involves other charges like theft or computer hacking.

Cathedral’s policy reads: “Consequences for cheating, plagiarism or any other form of academic dishonesty will include, but are not limited to, receiving a zero on the assignment, quiz or test and a detention or referral. Lying to the teacher or the dean’s office may result in further consequences.”

Schmitt said public schools must accept kids who were expelled from private schools, and often are not told the reason for the expulsion.

“We can’t expel kids for cheating,” he said. “The private schools can, and we end up with a lot of those kids.”

Several years ago, students came to two San Dieguito high schools, Torrey Pines and La Costa Canyon, after being forced to leave a private school for plagiarism and hacking into the school’s computer system and changing grades, Schmitt said.

“They arrived at our campuses, and we had no idea any of that had happened,” he said. “They did it again at our schools and got caught.”

Schmitt said private schools can dismiss students “at any time, pretty much for any reason.” He said he’s received kids in the public school system “who broke all kinds of rules at the private school, whether it was drug- and alcohol-related or issues around plagiarism. The kid just enrolls and the private schools don’t have to disclose why.”

If the family lives in the neighborhood, they have a right to public school, he said.

“That’s a true statement,” said SDJA’s Davis. “You’re guaranteed the right to a public education. You’re not guaranteed the right to a private school education.”

La Jolla High’s Shelburne agreed, saying: “Oftentimes we do not get the reasons why a student comes out of a private school to us. For any number of reasons — dealing drugs, cheating, fighting, whatever — that kid is removed from the private school and suddenly here he or she is on our doorstep.”

Davis said no student has ever been expelled for cheating from the private Jewish academy, but incidents do happen.

“We have the same things that occur here that occur at all other public and private schools,” said Davis, who noted that the most common form of cheating at his school is plagiarism.

Davis said the school tries to address the issue in ways that ensure it never happens again. First-time offenders are generally not suspended unless the cheating involves some crime like stealing or vandalism. “Kids sometimes make mistakes, and we want them to learn from it,” he said.