Cheating scandal prompts changes

Arundel schools revise testing procedures after 2007 incident

July 12, 2008|By Susan Gvozdas | Susan Gvozdas,Special to The Sun

After a cheating scandal last year landed an Anne Arundel County high school in hot water with the College Board, the atmosphere of Advanced Placement testing there changed drastically, said recent graduate Sage Snider.

Instead of chattering and toting schoolbooks for a last-minute peek before the national exams this spring, she said, Severna Park High School students silently entered the rooms and carried nothing but calculators. All other materials were banned.

"It was very, very different, and everybody knew why," said Snider, who on June 30 finished her term as the student representative on the county school board.

The aftershocks of allegations of cheating during the May 2007 AP American history exam extended into this week, when the school board approved a vastly revised academic integrity policy.

While the previous policy discussed examples of cheating and plagiarism, the new policy is more specific and allows teachers and administrators latitude in judging additional forms of cheating. The policy, which students helped formulate and grew from two pages to six, includes references to students texting answers via cell phones and plagiarizing computer "imagery or technology."

"The previous policy had good intentions, but it was poorly drafted," said Victor Bernson Jr., a school board member. The new one is "a stronger, better-written policy."

A well-defined policy that students help write can clear up discrepancies in their minds about what is cheating, said Don McCabe, a business professor at Rutgers University and the founding president of the Center for Academic Integrity. It also shows them that the school system - and society - takes it seriously.

"Basically, you're trying to convince students that this is stuff that really matters," McCabe said.

He has been conducting surveys of high school and college students on cheating for 18 years. In the public schools that he surveyed, 72 percent of respondents admitted to cheating on tests and 59 percent acknowledged plagiarism in the past year. Similar results were found in parochial schools.

A student-led survey of 337 students at Severna Park last year found that 70 percent believed a culture of cheating existed at the school, and 81 percent believed at least a quarter or more of the student body cheated.

It was taken in the wake of the cheating incident, when three students were accused of smuggling the essay portion of the AP U.S. History exam to the bathroom to look for answers. The College Board, which runs the AP program, banned one proctor at Severna Park High from administering future AP exams and required that the school's AP coordinator be retrained. The three unidentified girls were not allowed to retake the exam to get college credit but kept their history class grades. The 42 other students in the testing room at the time had to retake the four-hour exam.

Eugene Peterson, a school board member, said that he is not sure a change in policy is going to alleviate what he sees as part of a nationwide problem. He believes the cheating at much-lauded Severna Park is emblematic of a nationwide trend of pushy parents trying to get their children to be No. 1.

He pointed to statistics of increased suicides among students and the case of Lewin C. Powell III, the Towson teenager who is accused of fatally beating his mother with a baseball bat in May after an argument over grades.

"These are warning signs to a society that is pushing and pushing," Peterson said.

Snider's replacement on the school board said he believes the new policy will help show students that the school system is serious about cheating. Collin Wojciechowski, a senior at Chesapeake High School, said he liked the fact that the new policy addresses the use of technology to cheat. The new definition of plagiarism also mentions trying to pass off someone else's "imagery or technology as your own."

"It modernizes the policy and provides different ways to combat cheating," Wojciechowski said.

It closely resembles the honor codes in Harford and Howard counties, although the Harford policy does not mention technology. High school students there must sign a document that says they read the policy, which spells out what constitutes cheating and plagiarism. Harford schools also discuss cheating and plagiarism at the elementary school level, said spokeswoman Teri Kranefeld.

Howard County's academic integrity policy outlines not only students' responsibilities but also disciplinary actions that can be taken against test administrators who violate their responsibilities. Some of those responsibilities include giving students access to secure test items, failing to properly monitor students during testing and coaching answers.

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