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About this blog: I was editor of the Palo Alto Weekly from June 2000 to January 2011, capping a more than 50-year career in journalism and writing since Los Gatos High School, where I was editor of the student newspaper and president of the speech...  (More)

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On Deadline: Is 'cheating' ingrained in our schools, or society?

Uploaded: Sep 29, 2011
Last weekend hundreds of thousands of American high school seniors -- and some from other nations -- sat down nervously to take the SAT test, that fateful measure of scholastic aptitude that will in large part determine their academic fate for the next several years.

But several recent high-profile events are raising the question of cheating, despite strong admonitions against it in Palo Alto area schools.

One such event was the discovery that six students at Great Neck High School, a high-performing top-100 school similar to Palo Alto schools, actually hired a young-looking college student to take their SATs for them.

Well, the fellow had to work his way through college somehow, I suppose.

This followed revelations that some teachers and administrators, mostly in low-performing schools, were fudging test scores by erasing wrong answers and putting in correct responses to multiple-choice tests. Fudging? Hardly.

Yet there are serious, job-threatening penalties for teachers and administrators whose schools are deemed to be doing poorly or failing under federal regulations. Just keeping one's job can be a big incentive.

But what are these folks thinking, whatever their age or position as a student or teacher? And where did the Great Neck students get the $2,500 per-student fee to pay the college kid to sneak into the test room? In one case, CNN reported that he even took the place of a young woman student and was not detected. Did the parents not know their children were siphoning off pocket change from their allowances -- or were parents involved as co-conspirators?

Meanwhile, the Sacramento Bee reported Wednesday that California schools two years ago abandoned a "cheating detection" system -- such as watching for excessive erasure marks on test papers -- in favor of an "honors system." That may work for most students, but perhaps some are honor challenged and don't mind one-upping their fellows for their own advantage.

Well, six students may make national headlines but don't make a statistical blip among the hundreds of thousands of students who filed into test centers Saturday. Some felt confident due to their performances on Preliminary SATs they took as juniors, or because of follow-up tutorial help. PSATs are scheduled to be given in October.

One such test center was at Gunn High School in Palo Alto, where a capacity turnout of 1,135 students sat down for the regular SAT.

Of those who signed up, 267 were Gunn students, 205 Palo Alto High students and 107 Menlo-Atherton High students. The rest came from 57 other high schools from a large area, and included students from France and China and many from private schools in the region.

Nationwide, hundreds of thousands of seniors were doing the same thing, struggling with the same questions, the same ticking of time, perhaps the same hopes and fears.

Most believed they were playing on the proverbial "level playing field," basing their efforts on personal study habits, honesty and diligence. Some were coached by tutors, not considered cheating but providing a clear advantage to those whose families can afford it. Those who can't afford such personalized help find they must invest time and energy -- in a community that is already concerned about the intensity of such investment.

Scott Bowers, Palo Alto schools' assistant superintendent, said while there was no special effort being made this year to emphasize or detect cheating, teachers are expected to be watchful and district policies are explicitly outlined in student handbooks. The policy is meant to "provide an environment conducive to ethical behavior," it states.

Cheating, it says, "is an obstacle to achieving these goals." It cites factors that include pressure for grades, not enough time, students taking advantage of teachers who do not monitor their classes closely, unrealistic parent expectations and inefficient study skills.

The policy does not mention peer pressure, but perhaps that is hidden under "pressure for grades.

"In any of its forms, for whatever reason, cheating denies the value of education," the policy states.

It provides a clear, if slightly legalistic-sounding, definition: "Cheating is taking (or lending) at inappropriate times a person's work, information, ideas, research, or documentation, without properly identifying the originator. It includes using unauthorized materials when testing or other acts specified in advance by the teacher."

Sounds simple, almost simplistic. But this basic guideline seems to be a severe challenge to some students, parents and even teachers who feel the need, for whatever reason, to push the limit, to gain "an edge," to climb past others in what is the ultimate failure -- a failure of ethics that no multiple-choice test can easily measure.

Perhaps the worst thing is that it will rob the students of their personal sense of honor for the rest of their lives. Perhaps they will make enough extra money to make up for that great loss. Perhaps.

Note: Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at jthorwaldson@paweeekly.com and jaythor@well.com.
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Posted by Brian Guth-Pasta, a resident of ,
on Oct 8, 2011 at 1:48 pm

Brian Guth-Pasta is a registered user.

An easy thing right off the bat is have all the students put cell phones on the front desk at the beginning of the exam.

The other thing I would do is let students sit down, and then after everyone has "chosen" their seat I would completely reverse the seating. This would make the kids who would sit in the back row in front and visa versa. It is common knowledge that kids who naturally sit in front are "better" students and would cheat less because they are closer to the teacher normally so it would be harder normally cheat. They therefor would not prepare to cheat on the SAT and when asked to sit in back it doesn't matter that the teacher can't keep as good an eye on them, the focus can be on the kids who typically cause the trouble.

*Special note if kids need accommodations because of special needs then they can sit where needed.*

Posted by palo alto mom, a resident of ,
on Oct 8, 2011 at 3:59 pm

Getting a great score on the SAT's can be life changing - allowing you to attend a school you might not even dream of attending. The rewards for cheating are too great-better schools, potential scholarships, better grades, etc.

Posted by Nayeli, a resident of ,
on Oct 9, 2011 at 1:29 pm

Nayeli is a registered user.

It is unfortunate that cheating is so widespread in society. When I took my SAT, there was a person that I knew who was taking it across the auditorium. This person graduated with honors from my high school and was already attending college, so I was baffled that he would be taking the SAT.

A few weeks later, I saw this guy at a supermarket. I asked him about why he was taking his SAT again when he was already in school.

He laughed and said that he wasn't repeating the test, but taking it for someone else. He said that he was worried that they would inspect his fake photo id more closely, but he was relieved that the test administrator didn't examine it too closely.

It made me really think about how widespread cheating might be on tests like the SAT, ACT, LSAT, GRE, GMAT, etc... I suppose that the pressure is pretty immense for some people that they would resort to cheating.

Posted by Chris Gaither, a resident of ,
on Oct 11, 2011 at 3:34 pm

Children learn from adults. Children imitate adults. Children repeat what adults do and say. You want to build a better world; one with more acceptance, compassion, integrity, understanding, as well as effectiveness, it starts with the person in the mirrror. As the song goes, "Teach your children well."

Most likely, the parents knew, and encouraged the cheating; as the saying goes, "By all means necessary." Look at how we elect political leaders - be it local, or national. We give power to those who either pay to get the power, or know the right people to get the power - is this not a form of selective cheating? Look at how we select those who are given a certain job - if you know somebody in a position of influence, you can get that specific job or position. Cheating is a societal thing that affects all areas of life - the question is, can't it ever be reigned in?

Posted by Jay Thorwaldson, a resident of ,
on Oct 12, 2011 at 8:47 am

Jay Thorwaldson is a registered user.

Good comments. I particularly appreciated Nayeli's first-hand anecdote. Here's an idea for state Sen. Joe Simitian's "Oughta Be a Law" contest: Make sitting in for someone on SAT or other major academic-performance tests illegal, subject to substantial fines or perhaps even some jail time. Then produce a "Top Ten Most Wanted Cheaters" list and identify with photos those who are making good money doing that. -jay

Posted by Anon., a resident of ,
on Oct 15, 2011 at 4:49 pm

Good points, when we started down this road of corruption it is not easy to see, or to return from. Who know who is what, when the basic reality of the economy the society is corrupted what can people do?

There's a book out called "The Cheating Culture" that talks about this at length, since it is hidden and hard to find out, and we do not like to feel like we are the only ones to be looked at there are very few ways to look at this problem or to see what is going on or how to stop it.

Can we afford to come down on cheaters when everyone is cheating?

I think the solution is making it so people do not want to cheat, that one's life does not depend on cheating, and that there are no things that function like the SATs in terms of cutting people out of education or anything else. Our country, our society is getting very good and kicking people out, and then just expects to ignore them and that there will no cost involved with this mode of existence.

Posted by Former City Staff Member, a resident of ,
on Oct 17, 2011 at 4:50 pm

Posted by a resident of another community, on Oct 6, 2011 at 10:32 pm

As a former Palo Alto City Staff member, I want to note that there were numerous City requirements for the transition from the Varsity Theater usage to the Borders Books usage due to the historical nature of the building. This included the re-establishment of the theater usage if the Borders tenant left the property. Some of the requirements of the tenant improvement were the storage of the chairs of the former theater seating and the maintanance of the slope of the theater alignment. All this was required in the event that the usage of the site was changed due to Borders, or another to be stored to be replace if the above usage was changed. All of this happened in June of 1996 via the Palo Alto Planning Department and the Historical Resources Board. This issue needs to be researched and reported on by the local media. Don't let Mr. Keenen get away with ignoring property development agreements made 15+ years ago without proper City and public review and approval.

I remember special times spending in the courtyard of the Varsity Theater at the champagne brunch on Sundays, in the 1980's, with the harpsicord and other various musical venues performing. This was a wonderful experience and hopefully it can be re-established as it was. Sorry to see the demise of the brick and motar Borders Books venue, though.

Posted by JustMe, a resident of ,
on Oct 18, 2011 at 11:20 am

Trusting in the honor system to prevent cheating is like Safeway allowing people to check themselves out and have free access to the cash registers, with no supervision. Yeah, right.

What strikes me is that even with such lax oversight, those students got caught. What would happen if we actually LOOKED for cheating. I don't buy the argument that it was only six out of hundreds of thousands who cheated, it was only six cockroaches who got caught in the dark. Turn on a light, you will find more cockroaches.

Posted by honor code?, a resident of ,
on Oct 20, 2011 at 11:43 am

When I was in school, we had to handwrite on the cover of every exam paper or booklet... the full honor code.... in pen... in (gasp!) long hand... and then sign our name to it. Signing the written promise to not cheat and agreeing to the consequences (score of 0... and then some) certainly curtailed cheating. and when the average score on an exam was 37/100, it was clear cheating didn't happen.

Posted by Nayeli, a resident of ,
on Oct 21, 2011 at 9:11 am

@ honor code:

I attended a large public university, and I never knew that our school had an honor code until an older professor had us write it before a test. He made our class write it out (several times over the course of the semester) on the cover of our test.

I wonder how common it is? Do all schools have them? It would be a great way to remind students of the opportunity that they have and, for those who didn't have parents who explained it properly, the importance of honesty.

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