“Cheater, Cheater” – NECIR Contest Winner

This article, written by Jaeun Park, originally appeared on Paw Print, the news site of West Ranch High School. Park was the winner of NECIR’s High School Investigative Journalism Contest, and the piece is being republished here as an outstanding example of high school investigative reporting.

Cheater, Cheater

Original Photo by Audrey Kim and Sydney Young; Edit by Jaeun Park

Jaeun Park, Centerspread Editor


Cheating happens practically every day at West Ranch. Students at the lunch tables poring over each other’s answers,  talking about what was on the Human Anatomy quiz during AP Lit, or telling a friend whether there’s a spot quiz in Mr. Burn’s class next period.

There’s the obligatory stern warning at the beginning of the year when you get your syllabus: “Don’t talk to the other periods about what was on the test, that’s a form of cheating” usually
accompanied with the district academic dishonesty policy.

But still, people do it, and don’t get caught.

At one point in during the 2014-2015 school year, however, a group of sophomores taking an AP European History exam cheated and got caught.

It was the beginning of the second semester, when students still haven’t quite bounced back from winter break. Mr. Holland, the AP Euro. teacher, announced the first “non-partner” exam of the semester.

The test was taken by students in various degrees of sleep-deprivation. However, while most of the students were taking the exam diligently, a group of students had taken pictures of the exam which had been taken from the teacher’s desk outside of the school day.

Several students, unwilling to watch their AP Euro classmates be taken for fools, came forward and informed the teacher, Adam Holland, of the incident.

Outrage sparked. The exam grade was determined to be void for all of the students, and a written retake was scheduled for all of the periods of Euro.

And then, the backlash started. However, it wasn’t at the group of seven people who cheated — it was directed toward the people who came forward.

“[One person] blamed me for pretty much everything that happened, including his grade taking a hit. He called me a snitch and a bunch of other names and basically went into a rant on Twitter,” the girl who came forward said, “I’m not on any social media anymore because of what [the person] did. A little bit later, [another girl] came up to me and told me to stop bullying [the cheaters] and that if I didn’t stop she and her friends would go to the principal and tell him I was bullying them. She even went so far as to compare me to a Nazi. I haven’t even talked to [the cheaters] since it happened. Other people in the same class [as the cheaters] have been giving them [a hard time] because I think they’re mad because they had to retake the test.”

The girl’s friends, however, stand with her decision to come forward.

“I don’t understand why people are so mad. If she hadn’t come forward, Mr. Holland still would’ve found out eventually and then the whole entire class would’ve been punished instead of just the actual people. I’m just glad instead of all of us getting a zero on the exam we only had to take a retake. What makes me mad though is that retake is the reason why I have a ‘B’ in the class right now. All of my other tests grades are fine, but I had little time to study for the retake. Why should I be punished for something somebody else does? How come my grade relies on whether or not the person next to me has integrity?”

“Why should I be punished for something somebody else does? How come my grade relies on whether or not the person next to me has integrity?”

So, some of this may sound like just “teenage drama.” But this opens up an even bigger discussion — why is cheating such a big problem at West Ranch? In a school that isn’t in a slum, doesn’t have to deal with underfunding, and doesn’t have “gangs,” shouldn’t cracking down on academic dishonesty be the biggest problem?

The cheaters in AP Euro. were still able to stay in the class. Their punishment was minimal at best, and many fellow students and teachers are unsatisfied with the district policy and the lack of enforcement and support.

The district’s policy for cheating is for the teacher to fill out a referral form and handle it on-site. The document asks for the student’s name, and then has the teacher “instruct students in research and study skills appropriate to each subject, so that all students may feel confident that if they prepare, they can succeed without cheating. Students shall be encouraged to see tests as a means for finding out what they have learned. They shall be reminded that students who cheat on tests are cheating
themselves” (ref. “BP 5131.9 Academic Honesty Wm. S. Hart Union High School District).

When asked if he thought this would work, Holland stated, “I don’t. For the most part, students who are serial cheaters have a systemic flaw. Of the seven people, some were genuinely sorry and apologetic while the majority were, and are, unapologetic and will cheat again. There’s a character flaw with a lot of students, and, dare I say, a lot of parents as well. Right now, my policy is a zero on the assignment, which is appropriate for first-time offenders. However, for those who continue to cheat, it should be questioned whether the student deserves to be in the “higher” electives. It’s a privilege to be able to take AP and Honors classes, and for kids who only take those classes for grades they need to ask themselves, what is the purpose of education? Grades, or actual learning, I think the students have lost sight of this. Education is about just that, education.”

In opposition to Holland’s opinion was another friend of one of the people who came forward in AP Euro, who said, “If teachers actually cared about ‘actually learning’– how come we have to take all of these quizzes and tests that make up 20 percent or more of our grade?”

“If teachers actually cared about ‘actually learning’ — how come we have to take all of these quizzes and tests that make up 20 percent or more of our grade?”

It seems last year overall has been the worst year for cheating at West Ranch. AP Euro actually had a group of cheaters during the first semester of that school year as well, however at that time only one period was forced to retake a test. Freshmen taking AP Biology faced a similar situation when a group of students cheated on an exam.

In previous years, some teachers have even been faced with break-ins where students have taken exams or answer keys.

But those are the cases when the teachers and school noticed.

“I’ve seen many people cheat, especially in AP classes. And when they do cheat, it seems like teachers don’t take initiative — I really think they should take a stronger stance,” said junior Young Kim, who was forced to retake AP Euro exams twice last year due to people cheating.

Science teacher, Shawn Zeringue, takes many measures to ensure integrity when her students take exams. Students take exams with “privacy screens” to prevent snooping and phones are strictly forbidden at all times in the class. In addition, some students move to lab tables so that there is at least one seat between each student during a quiz or exam.

Zeringue said, “[In regards to consequences,] they can vary depending on how many times they have actually done it — admitting it and being honest should reduce the consequences. It should depend on how many times, if there is remorse, and if there is honesty. There has to be some kind of consequence, but it depends on their actions.”

In stark contrast, students are actually the ones pushing for harsher treatment of all cheaters.

“I think by the consequence the district gave out, they’re making it seem like cheating isn’t so bad,” Kim said, “In my opinion, cheaters should be dropped from the AP class and have it permanently go on their transcript.”

Junior Matthew Ludovico echoes this opinion. “I think cheaters should be dropped from AP, Honors, sports teams, NHS — basically, they shouldn’t be given the opportunity to have a good future with the rest of the people who actually worked for it.”

“They shouldn’t be given the opportunity to have a good future with the rest of the people who actually worked for it.”

“Cheating does go on the record,” said Principal Mark Crawford, “When those students go to get letters of recommendation from counselors, that counselor will see on their record that they cheated, and will be obligated to address that in their letter.”

Ninety percent of the time, in addition to it going on his or her record, the student will be also given a zero on the assignment he or she cheated on.

Vice Principal Audrey Asplund, however, believes giving a zero on an exam can do more harm than good. “Some teachers have a zero policy for cheating, which can really hurt a student’s grade.” If a student was to get a zero, the student may become even more desperate and begin to cheat even more.

But even through all the ways the school faculty tries to discourage cheating, some students believe cheating is necessary when it comes to homework and assignments.

“Cheating is bad, but necessary,” said a West Ranch alumnus (Class of 2015) who wishes to remain anonymous, “Even though cheating is really bad, cheating [on homework] has made my life much easier in high school. The benefits to my mental health have been way greater than the cost. However, cheating on a test is not okay because those are tests of knowledge. Cheating on say, Euro notes, aren’t that bad. In my experience, notes and homework have been just to propel a class discussion. In my opinion, cheating on notes and getting sleep and being able to participate fully is way better than pulling an all-nighter just to get some notes done.”

In some cases, it’s just asking your friend if you can copy their homework because you just fell behind a little. In other cases, it takes the form of borderline interrogating your friend for all of the test questions and answers before you go to take the test.

Junior Chandler Sutton, however, opposes all forms of cheating. “Cheating on homework is just cheating yourself. The purpose of homework is to be able to continue learning even after the class period is over.”

One thing they all can agree on — cheating on tests and exams is not okay.

“Cheating on a test, however, is cheating the other people around you,” Sutton continued.

In addition, Crawford believes cheating is not only cheating those around you, but yourself as well. “Morally, I don’t think it’s right, cheating is like lying — it’s presenting yourself as something you’re not. The whole purpose of education and our goal is student growth. When we’re trying to measure that growth, cheating is not a true representation of that growth. Cheating or using an improper method makes it so that there is no proper way to gauge where a student is. Therefore, we don’t even know how to help a student because we don’t know there’s a problem. We just want to know where the students are at.”

“It’s presenting yourself as something you’re not.”

If it’s such a bad thing, then why are kids still resorting to cheating?

“Cheating is such a big problem at West Ranch because of three main reasons: parental pressure, grades, and a lack of work ethic,” said Holland.

Zeringue also agreed, “There is so much pressure on you [students] to do well.”

“There is so much pressure on you [students] to do well.”

In short, parents put pressure on kids to do well, kids fall behind, kids cheat, the school tries to crack down on it, and then parents get mad at the school. It’s a vicious cycle.

Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services for the Hart District, Mike Kulhman said, “Academic dishonesty is an issue that speaks to
integrity, character, and honor. As a result, an accusation of dishonesty can often bring a question from parents. Knowing that this is a sensitive issue, we always try to be as clear as possible about what constitutes academic integrity — and what the consequences for dishonesty will be.”

This isn’t the first time cheating has broken out in West Ranch–nor will it be the last.

“[On a scale of 1-10]…The cheating problem at West Ranch would be…Can I do 12? It’s a huge problem. The cell phone [also] plays a huge role,” Holland said.

The district also agrees that the increasing amount of cheating is mainly due to the advancement of technology.

“I should note,” said Kulhman, “that we are all aware of the surveys that report incidences of academic dishonesty are on the rise — especially in a world where information is available at our fingertips at the push of a button. This is regrettable and necessitates that we continue focusing on celebrating and reinforcing academic integrity.”

Hopefully, cheating will become less of a problem at West Ranch.

However, students see it as a necessity, while the district and teachers feel as if they must tread softly in fear of parents. In short, with the way cheating is addressed by the students, parents, and the school, it probably will not become less of a problem anytime soon.

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