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High tech cheats, low tech reasons

Students invent new methods, schools counter with new safeguards. The basic issue is unchanged.

March 30, 2008|Carla Rivera | Times Staff Writer

When six Harvard Westlake students were expelled last month for stealing midterm exams at the academically rigorous school, the incident highlighted an old problem facing educators: cheating.

A 2006 national survey found that more than 60% of high school students said they had cheated on a test, and the number of self-admitted cheaters has steadily risen over the years.

Students today can use an array of high-tech gadgetry, challenging schools to keep pace. One click of the Internet opens a world of possibilities and temptations, devious and ingenious, with Web sites devoted to the best cheating practices, and cheating tutorials on YouTube.

One YouTube compilation offers such strategies as taping answers under a tie and designing a T-shirt with a cheat sheet printed on the front in a form that can be overlooked as a logo.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, April 02, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Cheating: An article in Sunday's California section about cheating in schools misspelled the name of former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair as Jason.

In another, a young man recounts his method of stretching a rubber band over a textbook and writing answers on it. When the rubber band isn't stretched, his writing looks like harmless ink stains. Yet another video explains how to remove a wrapper from a drink bottle and create a duplicate carrying test answers.

Although camera phones with pictures of an answer sheet, and text messages from friends outside the classroom are still the most ubiquitous electronic techniques, many schools have caught on and now ban devices such as cellphones and iPods during tests.

More recent innovations are button cameras, which have a wireless connection to a laptop computer that can then capture stolen test items, and pens capable of scanning a test and sending a video signal to a remote laptop to save the images.

One 17-year-old senior, who attends a Westside high school, said he once turned in an essay for English class that he had taken off a Web site. He said he probably would not do it again because he believes it is now easier to get caught plagiarizing.

The student, who gave only his first name, said he receives good grades and didn't feel the need to cheat now, but admitted that sometimes there is a lot of pressure.

"I don't think there's as much [cheating] going on as people think, but yeah, it's happening," said Christopher, interviewed at the Howard Hughes Center in Westchester. "It's mainly because society puts all this pressure on teenagers, saying you better do good or you won't get to college or you'll be second-rate."

Motivating students to cheat, educators said, are factors such as the pursuit of admission to the 'best' colleges and the fear that not cheating will put them at a disadvantage.

And add to that the stories in the news -- dishonest athletes, politicians and even parents ready to behave unethically, for example, to obtain Hannah Montana tickets.

In the last few weeks, married New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer resigned amid a sex scandal, and the supposed gang memoir of a mixed-race foster child named Margaret B. Jones turned out to have been written by Margaret Seltzer, a white woman from the San Fernando Valley who attended Campbell Hall, a private school in North Hollywood.

"It's a mistake to talk about school cheating without referring to society at large," said Michael Josephson, founder and president of the Los Angeles-based Josephson Institute of Ethics, a nonprofit consulting and training firm. "We need to connect these dots and ask what is our attitude toward cheating, because kids are going to absorb that attitude. . . . And cheating learned in school is habit-forming."

Many educators are searching for their own answers.

David Bryan, head of New Roads School, a private campus in Santa Monica, dealt with a cheating scandal at his own campus a few years ago and recently spoke with a student who had been expelled from Harvard Westlake for the same thing. The student's family was likable and the student contrite, Bryan said. The student ultimately did not apply for admission, but Bryan is unsure whether he would have given the boy a second chance.

"On the one hand, why would I want to bring this kid into our community," said Bryan. "On the other, does that mean that we're supposed to give up on this kid and not give him a second chance?"

Schools increasingly are turning to test-security firms that use computer software capable of picking out anomalies in multiple-choice exams and identifying plagiarized material. Many more, such as New Roads, are also assuming responsibility for helping students to navigate the minefield of moral and ethical behavior with character-building curricula and ethics workshops.

Bryan said he was under no illusion that his campus was free of cheating. It was established in 1995 and has more than 640 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, spread over four campuses. Under the school's policy, students caught cheating the first time must forfeit credit for the assignment or test and do the work over again. A second occurrence will get them expelled.

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