Keeping students honest

Youth leaders say cheating goes far beyond Severna Park High

May 25, 2007|By Ruma Kumar | Ruma Kumar,SUN REPORTER

Amid concerns about cheating at Severna Park High School, Anne Arundel County student government leaders said that the problem is common at their schools too and goes unchecked because of defensive parents, weak administrators and a frantic competition to get into top colleges.

At a forum this week with two school board members, students said they do not believe their schools are abiding by a five-year-old Board of Education policy that requires an Honor Council made up of parents, educators and students in every middle and high school. The council is supposed to keep tabs on the academic integrity in schools and review and update policies as concerns over dishonesty arise.

The revelation on Wednesday evening prompted the school system's chief of staff, George Margolies, to order an inquiry yesterday of how many middle and high schools are violating the policy.

The move came days after county school system officials stopped three Severna Park High students from re-taking the Advanced Placement U.S. history exam after they allegedly got hold of a sealed packet of questions and sneaked into a bathroom to find answers in a review manual. The 42 other students in that May 11 testing group were told to re-take the history exam yesterday.

The lack of immediate sanctions against the students spurred an outcry at the lauded county high school, where top-ranked pupils said cheating was pervasive. A student-led survey of 337 students that found 70 percent believe a culture of cheating exists at the school, and 81 percent believe at least a quarter or more of the student body cheats.

The forum, one of two "Meet the Board" nights held by the Chesapeake Regional Association of Student Councils (CRASC), allowed student government leaders to chat with board members about an array of issues.

However, cheating and what fuels it was a recently added hot-button topic after this week's events at Severna Park High. Among the seven school board members, only vice president Euguene Peterson and Victor E. Bernson attended.

Students from some middle schools described the tactic of tapping on desks to share answers during multiple choice tests. Others talked about "homework deals" where each student in a group is responsible for answering one or two questions, then they all trade the responses to complete an assignment.

A student who shared some of these details before a teacher apologetically said, "I'm not trying to say teachers are oblivious..."

But Meade Middle School social studies teacher Robi Gilbertson admitted it: "No, we are. We don't know some of the things that are going on. In the last two minutes, you've just told me things that I had no idea were going on."

Annapolis High sophomore Nia Calhoun said cheating at her school was common.

"I haven't seen it on any major tests like AP or anything, but it happens all the time on class quizzes and homework, it's like, `Hey, what's your answer on this?' or `What'd you get for that?'" she said.

Calhoun and others from Southern, North County and Northeast high schools described an "unhealthy competition" that grew out of a frenzied and competitive rush to get into exclusive colleges. That rush, along with the school board's recent push for higher enrollment in the courses, had many classmates signing up for AP courses to beef up transcripts, even if they're not ready for the college-level work.

Bernson, who had been quiet during the 15-minute discussion, didn't buy it.

"I find your argument that this push for excellence somehow leads to cheating to be completely non-sequitur," Bernson said. "We live in a society where we ... distinguish between low performers and high performers."

Even as cheating has become more brazen, students said they've noticed some teachers grow frustrated about not being able to stop it.

Current board policy states cheating must be reported to school administrators in a discipline referral form. Other than suggesting that credit be withheld for an assignment or that a failing grade be issued, the policy is relatively vague about the consequences students face for cheating.

The policy gives principals broad latitude to levy punishment that "may vary according to the severity of the violation" and asks that the principals work periodically with the Honor Council to tweak how each school deals with cheating.

Gilbertson said she has faced stiff opposition from "defensive parents" when she has tried to report cheating.

"It's a shameful experience for the family to be told something like that about their child. So, they get defensive and ask `How do you know? How do you know it's my child?' and all I can say is `I saw your child do this.' It makes teachers and administrators back up, you know," she said. "It's almost like I have to have a legal brief ready to report it."

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