Sunday, July 26, 2009


Last month Centerburg High School, located in central Ohio, canceled its graduation ceremonies. The reason: Administrators had discovered that a large percentage of the graduating class had been cheating on exams throughout their final semester.

The plot was masterminded by a student who had hacked onto the school's computer system, accessed teachers' files, downloaded upcoming exams and distributed copies to classmates. It came to light when a video referring to the cheating as "the biggest prank ever" was found on a school computer.

The cheating apparently was widespread, with most of the graduating class either participating in the cheating or at least being aware of it and remaining silent.

Unable to identify everyone who was involved in the caper, Superintendent Dorothy Holden decided to cancel graduation ceremonies and instead mail diplomas to students. Her intention, she said, was to send a message that cheating will not be tolerated and that it is not OK to turn a blind eye to such misconduct.

William Jacobson, a reader in Cypress, Calif., alerted me to the incident. He believes that, by choosing the path she did, Holden has sent a message precisely opposite the one she intended.

"Far from letting students know that cheating cannot be tolerated," he writes, "she still graduated these students who had cheated all semester. She is making no (distinction between) those who cheated, those who only knew about the cheating (and) those who were innocent bystanders."

Jacobson has three questions: Is it ethical for the school to punish the noncheating students as well as the cheaters? Is it ethical to punish students for knowing about the cheating and not reporting it? Is it ethical for the school to graduate those who cheated along with those who didn't?

Rarely can incidents like this be resolved with one clear-cut response. It would be good to believe that students who were aware of the cheating would alert school administrators. Unless students are instructed how to do such reporting, however, and unless it is made clear to them why to do so is important to their own integrity and the integrity of their school, the hazards of speaking up against their own classmates may be overwhelming.

Those who are truly innocent bystanders should not be punished, of course. But in this situation, as is often the case, it's difficult to discern the truly innocent from those who simply kept quiet about something they knew or even those who actively participated but did not get caught.

To answer Jacobson's first question, if the cheating was as widespread as seems to be the case -and if there's no way to definitively determine who did and who didn't cheat - I believe a punishment for the class as a whole, one that deprives them of a social occasion but does no long-term damage to any student's educational prospects, is acceptable. Not ideal, but acceptable.

Should students be punished for knowing about the cheating, not participating in it but failing to report it? If the school has a clear honor code that lays out students' responsibility not only to behave honestly but also to report any infractions that they may witness, then obviously it is fair to hold them accountable for not reporting this widespread cheating.

If there is no honor code, the situation is not as clear-cut. I still believe, however, that the scope of the problem justifies punishment. This is not a case of one student failing to report an individual cheater, but rather of a systemic breach of conduct which threatens the integrity of the educational process as a whole.

As to Jacobson's third question, I agree that it sends a counterproductive message to allow known cheaters to pass the courses in which they cheated and to receive their diplomas, by mail or otherwise. All students whose active participation in the scheme can be confirmed should receive a substantial punishment that is clearly more severe than those only suspected, those who looked the other way or, obviously, those who were not involved.

Looking ahead, the right thing for the high-school administrators to do is to establish a clear set of guidelines covering students' responsibilities in the case of cheating by other students. Then they should work hard to get their students to embrace those guidelines and follow them, recognizing that, if they don't, it will be the whole school that loses.¶

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


Bill Jacobson said...

Thank you for posting the question, Jeffrey. I believe that canceling graduation was an appropriate initial response to the late-discovered widespread cheating, but it is also insufficient to leave it at that.

There needs to be a seperation of the wheat from the chaffe - those who cheated should be denied credit for the semester and have their record marked. It is inexcusable for the administration to knowingly allow those who would actively undermine the integrity of the education system to prosper by their misdeeds.

They should place a hold on every diploma until the investigation is completed. This will also encourage those who know who participated to come forward.

William Jacobson
Cypress, CA

M. Lawrence said...

As a high school teacher, I can tell you that a depressingly large number of otherwise "good kids" see no problem with cheating (otherwise known as "helping"). Cooperative learning has been pounded into many of them from first grade, reinforcing the idea that sharing your work is a good thing. What it really means in practice is that the smarter kids do the work and the rest copy. This transfers to the situation in Ohio.
One bright little bulb figures out how to get into the system and then "shares" the information with the rest. He gets status for being so clever, and they get to pass. Everyone "wins" except the system which says it values honesty and abhors cheating.
I'm sure the superintendent was frustrated and angry and probably anxious to "make a statement" for the system and the press. But ultimately, the statement was: it's okay - nothing's really going to happen to you if you cheat.
If it had been my call, I would have withheld all diplomas as there is no workable way to separate who did from who didn't. Require the teachers to make new exams - not multiple choice or true/false - but exams with essay questions that actually test knowledge. To get the diploma, the seniors would have to pass those exams. After all that extra work, the kid who distributed the tests initially would stop looking quite so clever. More work for everyone. That's technology - that's life.

Kenney said...

To M. Lawrence: I'm trying to think of a classic moral foundation that supports the idea that right should be punished or that anyone should suffer for the wrongdoing of another. I'm striking out, though. Could you identify any credible philosopher who inspired your thinking?

M. Lawrence said...

Kenney, the philosopher who inspires my thinking in this case is "reality." I'm assuming you're referring to my suggestion that all seniors should have to re-take an actual exam that tests knowledge. If it were remotely possible to separate the kids who actively used the tests from the kids who just glanced at them from the kids who knew about it but didn't tell from the kids who didn't know about it from the parents who would swear on bibles that their child didn't cheat - then I'd say, sure, go ahead, punish the wrong doers and leave the rest alone. What's YOUR idea?