Tag: cheating

Colleges Cheat on the SAT, Too

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Maybe Sam Eshaghoff, the student accused of running an SAT-cheating ring in  New York, should have gone to Claremont McKenna College? He would’ve fit right in at the school, which announced that it had falsified its average SAT scores for the past six years in order to rise in the rankings.

The school — which claims that Richard Vos, vice president and dean of admissions, was the sole figure responsible for the fraudulent data — inflated its average SAT scores by about 10 or 20 points. Like all good cheaters, they knew not to show extravagant improvements… which is maybe why they got away with it for so long.

Is changing a median SAT score of 1400 to a 1410 really worth it? Well, in our rankings-dominated world, colleges can become obsessed with where they stand relative to other schools. Just like the highly-competitive (and highly pressured) students they’re hoping to admit, schools do everything they can to make sure they stand out from the crowd. For some, this includes bending the rules — or even outright lying.

The New York Times lists a few other instances of schools that have attempted to game the rankings. Iona College in New York lied about pretty much all of its stats, and subsequently rose from 50th to 30th in its region; Baylor University paid students to re-take the SATs, hoping their second scores would be higher, thus bumping up the school’s average. And many schools routinely hold off on admitting students with lower SATs until January, so their scores aren’t included in the university’s average.

Is this a sign that the college rankings obsession has gone too far?

Honoring the Honor Code

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Gilman students, present and former, can rattle it off in a mindless rush, just as other people do with the Pledge of Allegiance, the Lord’s Prayer, or any statement repeated by rote thousands of times:  As a gentleman, I have acted honorably in writing this paper.

Current students of local schools both private and public — all of whom asked to remain anonymous — told me tales of paper-copying, plagiarism, re-written answers, and plenty of other non-honorable behavior. Meanwhile, schools promote honor policies with lofty phrases (“honor in every phase of school and personal life should be scrupulously maintained,” trumpets the Roland Park Country School’s policy, for example).  In an era of intense pressure and unrealistic expectations, what is the honor code’s place in our schools?

While many students admit that academic dishonesty is common, they point out that it rarely looks like the cheating seen in after-school specials.  “I’ve never heard of anyone writing answers on their hand, or something like that. That kind of ‘classic cheating,’ the stuff that’s really blatant, is practically unheard of,” says one Bryn Mawr senior.  A senior at Friends agrees:  “Whether or not there is a problem with cheating depends on what you consider cheating.”  The big scandals at different schools — the girl who plagiarized a major project, or the top-10 student who re-wrote the answers on a math test — are rare enough that students recount them in hushed tones. Instead, honor code violations are much more likely to be petty, daily behaviors.

It turns out that among students, there is an implicit moral code to dishonesty.  “I never cheated because I couldn’t do the work, but only because I didn’t,” one former Gilman student told me. And while the distinction may not matter to teachers and administrators, to students it makes all the difference.  “As dumb as it may sound, everyone who does [cheat] is very moral about it,” a 2010 Gilman grad, told me. “Most people I know wouldn’t cheat on something they didn’t have the information to.” Cheating on tests and exams is rare and frowned upon; cheating on projects or homework is much less of a big deal. Emailing your teacher a purposefully corrupted document so you can have a few extra days to work on your essay?  That’s a sneaky way to boost grades, but it’s not the same as buying a paper from the internet.  Spell-checking French homework, while not entirely on the up-and-up, is more like “taking advantage” of the system, rather than cheating, according to the Bryn Mawr senior. 

The distinction matters because, in the social world of high school, major cheating is looked down upon. At both Bryn Mawr and Gilman, honor violations are announced in assembly; even if the offenders aren’t named, “everyone knows who it is,” one student told me.  “The judgement of peers is a big deterrent [to cheating],” the Bryn Mawr senior said, mentioning one girl who was called out in class for looking at another student’s paper during a test. “There’s a real sense of embarrassment and shame, because everyone knows.”

In general, as students see it, the teachers and administration are partially to blame for the prevalence of these low-level honor code violations. “At times, the amount of work we’re doing seems so ridiculous that it makes the honor code kind of ridiculous,” one student said.  Other students returned again and again to the subject of pressure — the difficulty of being a three-season athlete juggling AP classes, extracurricular commitments, and college applications.  One teacher will assign a mountain of work without seeming to realize that all the other teachers are doing the same.  The idea of even having any time to enjoy high school, one sophomore told me wistfully, was difficult to imagine. Not surprisingly, then, many of the cheaters the students knew weren’t lazy kids who didn’t feel like putting in the work, but rather valedictorian-caliber students who felt as though they couldn’t risk even one bad quiz grade.  “I don’t think he cared about calculus,” one alum said about a classmate who got caught cheating on a math test. “He cared about getting into Harvard, Princeton, or Yale.”

Spend any time talking at length with teenage high achievers, and you might end up feeling dismayed.  Their stories of rampant pressure, competition, and cheating can make it sound as though they see high school as a system meant to be gamed.  But that’s hardly the whole story.  Again and again, I was surprised and encouraged to hear students speak of the honor code with a respect approaching reverence. Harrison Hart attended Gilman for three years before transferring to Phillips Academy Andover, where the honor code was “far more academic, strictly procedural” than Gilman’s broader emphasis on “the substance of honor.” He was surprised to find that he missed Gilman’s honor statement. Whereas others worry that the rote repetition of the honor code leaches meaning from the words, Hart sees it differently:  “By repeating the action [of writing or stating the honor code], you’re internalizing an obligation of honor.”  And even though one Gilman alum had plenty of smart, critical things to say about how the honor code is deployed, he thought Gilman should hold onto it.  “It’s important to the school,” he said. “And it’s not the honor code that’s the problem.  It’s having these foolish academic expectations.  The emphasis needs to be on learning to become a better person. That’s the culture that needs to change.”

Students have various ideas about how that change might come about.  For some, it boils down to encouraging sincere personal relationships between administrators, teachers, and students.  “The best method [to keep students from cheating] is when a well-respected teacher looks you in the eye and says, ‘This is on your honor,’” the Bryn Mawr senior said.  Having peers who serve on honor councils is another way that students connect to honor policy in a positive way.  The Towson High School student lamented missed opportunities for discussion. “Sometimes, on the morning announcements, they’ll say ‘Don’t cheat.’ But they don’t give a reason, they just say ‘Don’t.’ If they gave some solid reasoning, or if the teachers really discussed it and explained that cheating is bad for the students, I think that might change things.” Gilman is already ahead of the game in this manner — the school hosts assemblies and discussions about the place of honor in students’ lives.

At the end of the day, though, cheating will probably always be a part of high school life, no matter how earnest the honor code or how committed the teachers. And while Hart agrees that “it basically all comes down to discussion,”  he also points out that “at the end of the day, it’s not the pledge that has value, but how it’s internalized. There’s only so much the school can teach.”

SAT Cheating Scandal Widens

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Back in September, Sam Eshaghoff was arrested and charged with helping other students cheat on college admissions tests. Eshaghoff, who had graduated from high school in 2010, got paid a few thousand dollars to take the SAT and ACT while posing as other students — one of them a girl.

And now, according to the New York Times, several of those involved in the scandal are expected to turn themselves in today. The Times‘s anonymous source claims that at least four students who paid for stand-in test takers and three more test-takers are going to speak up. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg — a total of 35 students are under investigation. And while when the story first broke, it sounded like it was limited to Great Neck High students, now prosecutors believe that students from two public and three private schools are involved. (Some of the students may be off the hook because the statute of limitations have expired; others were under 18 at the time, and so will face only misdemeanor charges.)

Long Island residents seem both shocked and not shocked. “The pressure from parents and peer groups to get into Ivy League schools is incredible,” a local teacher explained. If it’s happening in Long Island, do you think it’s happening in Baltimore, too?

SAT Cheating Scandal: Just the Tip of the Iceberg?

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Schools worry about test-hackers and computer-aided cheating, but Sam Eshaghoff pulled an SAT scam the old-fashioned way… by using fake IDs. According to allegations, the 19-year old from Long Island took the test seven times, once on his own behalf and then passing as six others (including a girl with a gender-neutral name!).

The fraud itself sounds so basic that Eshagoff can’t be the only mastermind attempting something like this:

Cheating Scandal Spreads to Pennsylvania

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It’s one of those news stories that just gets more depressing:  the cheating epidemic that hit Baltimore earlier this year has moved on to Pennsylvania, where a whopping 89 schools were flagged for possible testing improprieties. (28 of these were in Philly, a city with 257 schools; in the Baltimore scandal, 2 out of 56 elementary schools were implicated.) As a New York Times story notes, “Never before have so many had so much reason to cheat. Students’ scores are now used to determine whether teachers and principals are good or bad, whether teachers should get a bonus or be fired, whether a school is a success or failure.”

The Pennsylvania story is much like the one in Baltimore, which was similar to a previous scandal in Atlanta:  School districts have little incentive to call foul on fellow educators; cramped newspaper budgets mean that damning reports sit gathering dust on reporters’ desks. When the news finally breaks, everyone wrings their hands for a little while, but ultimately not much changes.

The New York Times reporter concludes that we need a top official with the clout and political will to make a real investigation happen — and to make sure the cheating doesn’t recur. What do you think — does that sound like a likely prospect for Baltimore?

What’s Going On With Cheating Around Here? To be Fair, It’s Everywhere…

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In early spring, The Baltimore Sun revealed that city schools administrators spent $320,000 to hire and train test monitors to prevent cheating during the state’s annual standardized test. That story came soon after a friend had passed on to me “The Shadow Scholar” a first-hand account on The Chronicle of Higher Education website by a writer who churns out papers for college cheaters.  All this was a sad reminder of rumors that swirled last year about a Baltimore senior who had been caught cheating. I witnessed parents clash over dinner about how the school handled it (suspension not expulsion).

Race to Nowhere” a new documentary that was screened this winter at Park School sheds some light on the problem. The documentary follows over-achievers and their driven parents in the high-income central coast of California, but the angst and dysfunction of the students could easily be found at any affluent neighborhood in any city across the country, including Baltimore. Teens admit on camera to cheating and say they feel like every test, every grade, every paper is do or die and they just can’t always do their best after rising early for a full day of school, followed by hours of grueling athletics and late nights of strenuous homework. Yet they can’t fathom losing their place at the top of the class. Similarly, when someone at Baltimore’s George Washington Elementary School tampered with test booklets in 2008, was it fear of job loss that motivated the behavior? (The principal at the school was removed and the new teacher and current staff are doing their best to raise scores legitimately. See the George Washington Elementary rap “My Pencil” about passing the MSA starring teacher Mr. McCraw on our video landing below.)

I’m not trying to make excuses.  I’m trying to understand the shift in our culture.  Or has there been a shift? A friend pointed out that cheaters have been around since the beginning of time. Fair enough. But doesn’t it seem more rampant? Ask your kids. I hear it is more widespread, but what are you hearing?  More importantly, what do we do about it? 

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