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How to handle students cheating

What should we do about the computer hackers at Winston Churchill High School in Montgomery County who changed dozens of grades? What is the solution to student cheating in general?

Research suggests that rising pressure to get into good colleges has led students to cut corners. One study cited by the Educational Testing Service said only about 20 percent of college students in the 1940s said they cheated in high school, while that proportion is four times as large today.

De-emphasize the college race, some experts say, and much of this nonsense will go away. I have argued for many years that parents and students should recognize the research indicating that adult success really doesn't depend on the prestige of one's alma mater. But that approach to easing cheating isn't going to get us far. Competition is too much a part of American culture. Also, college pressure tends to affect only the top 20 percent of students who seek selective schools (it's a higher percentage in the affluent Washington area) and not students who cheat for other reasons, such as laziness or boredom.

If you have some ideas, post them as comments here. I think the solution is obvious: smart teaching.

The best teachers I know encourage teamwork in their classes. They encourage behavior that helps the group, and discourage behavior that doesn't. This means quick rebukes and sometimes loss of privileges when one student insults or bullies another, interrupts the class or fails to do an assignment. They explain that copying is unfair to other team members and hinders one's own progress.

Not all students know this. In this culture, cheating is often honored. Notice that some of the most popular and attractive actors in the country play con-men in the films Oceans 11, 12 and 13.

Good teachers love their students. Some trust them until that trust is betrayed, and then show how disappointed they are, a good motivator. Others assume from the beginning that, as much as they love their students, they can't trust them.

There are dozens of smart ways to give a test, starting with staying in the room and paying attention to what is going on. You can change the order of questions for test papers of students sitting near each other. You can look for obvious similarities in answers. You can have a probing conversation on the lesson after class with a student whose work suddenly and mysteriously improves.

But the best way to deal with cheating, creative teachers tell me, is to emphasize conceptual learning, as well as building students' skills, such as clear and critical writing. The classic homework assignment in history, answering questions at the end of the chapter, is an open invitation to copying. (Though even that will implant some material in a young brain.) It may be better to assign the reading and then give a quick quiz first thing the next day that requires short answers:

Q: Why did some American generals oppose the Italian campaign in World War II? A: They thought it would delay and dilute a direct attack on the Germans from England.

Give ten questions, to be answered in five minutes. You not only get a fast start to the class, but a good sense of who needs help.

Good teachers in English and social studies demand a lot of writing, in class and at home. If a student's homework is brilliant but her class writing is not, running the homework through plagiarism detectors online may solve the mystery. Or you can have a private conversation about how much her parents are involved with her work.

What about those wayward computer geniuses at Churchill High? As I said, many good teachers love, but don't trust, their kids. A smart teacher checking grade records exposed this scheme. Educators like that, with their focus on learning, will close enough loopholes to provide the education their students need, no matter how hard our kids look for an easier way.

Read Jay's blog every day at

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By Washington Post editors  | March 15, 2010; 9:25 AM ET
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And what example have the students in the Churchill Cluster been given by adults?

What example have administrators set for students in Montgomery County, and in the Churchill cluster?

The Washington Post has reported, but you conveniently leave out of your column:

Adults changing grades:

Adults and state testing:

Adults ignoring the Maryland Constitution:

Children learn what they live.

Jay, why aren't you demanding that the school administration set the example from the top? These students are still being charged to attend public school classes, they are watching the masters of loopholes deny them their right to a free public education. Kids are smart they see the example that is set.

Posted by: jzsartucci | March 15, 2010 10:03 AM | Report abuse

In my humble opinion, the cheaters need to be expelled and required to do this school year over again. It is better to hand down harsh punishments now than to get in the 'real world' and not understand that their actions have real and serious consequences. They are old enough to know right from wrong. I think if the school system comes down harsh now, then the police do not need to be involved. And yes, some parents will complain, but since when do we need to change the rules for vocal parents? They caused harm to those 'who they did not like', the punishment must be swift and harsh. I can't believe that no punishment has been handed down yet. If this was done on the job, then they would lose their jobs.

Posted by: dho7993186 | March 15, 2010 11:26 AM | Report abuse

"I have argued for many years that parents and students should recognize the research indicating that adult success really doesn't depend on the prestige of one's alma mater."

I'm curious as to what this research is. Common sense would suggest otherwise, and a quick google scholar search indicates that the preponderance of evidence says that college selectivity does positively affect earnings and/or occupational status, even after controlling for the obvious factors (aside from Dale and Kreuger, and even they show an effect for low-income students).

Posted by: qaz1231 | March 15, 2010 11:41 AM | Report abuse

Cheating is done for many reasons, so the remedy should fit the problem. In this case, kids hacked the grading system, and since they were changing grades up and down, this tells me that they were attacking the evaluation system itself, and using it to attack and reward according to their criteria. Yes, they should be punished, in some way that shows they understand and are sorry (not just sorry they got caught).

For the larger problem, our system of education is way too focused on grades and test scores (especially multiple choice tests like the SAT and others administered by Educational Testing Service). Teachers and students at every level, but especially secondary school, college and even grad school, will tell you that the grading system often gets in the way of learning.

Yes, focus more on group learning, writing instead of multiple choice, and concepts more than grabable bits of information. But also focus on assessing student work in a wider way, and use grades as a measure of progress, rather than a carrot and stick.

Last, it occurs to me that this "student prank" is the hackers' equivalent of storming the school with computers instead of guns. I'm glad they didn't come out shooting. But it appears that the school culture needs some attention.

Posted by: lagibby1 | March 15, 2010 12:40 PM | Report abuse

Again we are asking the teachers to "instil teamwork in classes" and this is going to stop cheating? Did some of WaPo's reporters kids go to this school? Expel the kids. For good. Sayonara kid, this was in the rulebook as an expelable offense and therefore you must now leave the premises. How do you think the others rule abiding kids feel? Probably like chumps. The teachers don't need to shift there teaching in high school to "teambuilding." Lord, when is MoCo going to grow a pair?

Posted by: stopthemadness | March 15, 2010 1:14 PM | Report abuse

Back in the 1940's most schools still believed a large part of their mission was moral instruction. If you look at textbooks used prior to the mid-1960's it's clear that the lessons weren't just academic. But that's too politically incorrect for today's educrats...

Posted by: CrimsonWife | March 15, 2010 1:35 PM | Report abuse

One part of the answer has to be ethical (moral) education in the public schools. As of now, there is none, as far as I know. Kids are looking for meaning. They can find it on MTV and Gossip Girl, and they can also find it in competition to stick the "best" college decal on the car window. They can also receive it from their parents, but I think the job is too large and important for our country to rely on (or default to) that alone. Not that I want the federal government dictating the content . . . .

I wonder -- do any of the localpublic schools have required ethics instruction? If so, what does it look like? If not, why not? What is the current thinking about this? I remember reading Dewey on this long ago in college, but I have no idea what's current.

Posted by: OWNTF | March 15, 2010 1:45 PM | Report abuse

@ stopthemadness -- it's hard to take your thoughts on education seriously when you don't know the difference between their and there

Posted by: OWNTF | March 15, 2010 1:47 PM | Report abuse

for qaz1231, Dale and Krueger was exactly what I was referring too, plus a lifetime of interviewing people on how they became successful and a scan of the alma maters of our senators and governors and business leaders. (The first chapter of my book Harvard Schmarvard has all of my arguments on this.) I think D and K exposed the flaw of all other studies---sure the ivies may have a larger number of people making big incomes, but that does not appear to be because going to an Ivy gave them the chance to be rich. Instead the Ivies are great at attracting people who already have the character strengths that lead to success. D and K showed that students who had those strengths but did not go to selective colleges did just as well 20 years later as those who did go to very selective schools. The effect on low income students is interesting, but irrelevant when talking about Churchill High.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | March 15, 2010 3:08 PM | Report abuse

What, it's the teacher's fault again? Kids cheat, and you blame the teachers?

Teachers don't even allow their students to take their tests home, because the kids pass them around to the next year's class, who just memorizes the answers.

As for the rest, you're just promoting the constructivist view, and the reason no one cheats on those tests is because you don't have to--they're absurdly easy. Any answer wins the prize.

To say nothing of the fact that, as you obliquely acknowledge at the end, these kids HACKED INTO THE COMPUTERS. So all that yammering about giving good tests? Nothing to do with the solution. Solution: Check to be sure that the grades on the printout match reality. You could have an admin do that. It's hardly teaching.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | March 15, 2010 3:39 PM | Report abuse

Studies that rely on student self-reporting may not be reliable. It's very possible for students to be confused about what constitutes cheating (and group work and peer editing only add to the confusion.) It's not necessarily bad teaching that promotes cheating, but it takes good teaching to stop it.

Posted by: jlhare1 | March 15, 2010 3:52 PM | Report abuse

The effect on low income students is interesting, but irrelevant when talking about Churchill High.

That's not a true statement.

Are you saying is that if you are low income you are ignored at Churchill HS? That's a true statement, because if you can't pay for classes you are left out.

In one year Churchill HS collected over $2 million dollars in fees from families. Far and above any other MCPS high school. Doesn't mean the students could all afford these illegal fees, it just means that those that could pay got more - like textbooks.

Posted by: jzsartucci | March 15, 2010 3:53 PM | Report abuse

Cheating? Our students? Never!

My advice to teachers is this: if you don't want kids to cheat on tests, don't give tests. Tests are just about the least effective way to evaluate student learning.

The other trick: guide kids in making responsible individualized choices in their work within a particular area of study. Then everybody's doing something different, little copying can occur, and what does occur is generally a positive manifestation of one student learning from another.

In the real world, we don't take tests and we don't all do the same work, the same way, at the same time. I, for example, do not take credit for articles Jay Mathews has written, though I often wish that I had said what he said before he said it.

[IN STEWIE GRIFFIN VOICE] Hmmm... now if only I could build a time machine and...

We do, however, work together, in communities that must be lubricated by trust in order to run effectively, so there's not much point in individual cheating, for the cheater or the group. Almost everyone gets caught eventually simply because the "cost" of allowing a cheater to keep on cheating is so much higher than just getting rid of the cheating -- or the cheater.

In the 21st century, cheating should be an irrelevant concept in school. With research-based assessment approaches that don't rely on grading systems that can easily be gamed (like you and I used to do) and "test-free" "guided-choice" teaching methods (which you and I would have flourished in even more than we flourished in the traditional system), cheaters gain little advantage in exchange for great risk.

Posted by: StevePeha | March 15, 2010 4:22 PM | Report abuse

I suggest looking at the grading system ... maybe it's time for a new approach to measure "learning'. A work approach would be to define/clarify expectations - material to be learned/job to be accomplished - at the start of the year - and 'test' on expectations.

My experience as a college professor - and consultant - is that the 'grading curve' at school or in performance reviews is out of date.

Posted by: doc4orgzin | March 15, 2010 4:32 PM | Report abuse

jay: Thanks for the reply. I haven't studied the issue closely enough to be able to critique the research, but I was struck by what seemed to be quite a few studies that painted a picture different from D & K. I'll have to read them when I have time.

As to the intuitive/anecdotal evidence (which I certainly don't discount on a subject like this), I just have to wonder. Where did you go to school? Where did half the writers for the Post and NYT go to school? Where did essentially every prominent non-legislative Fed Gov official (right up to the president and SC justices) in the last 20 years go to school? I can't believe connections don't matter. And as someone who went to an elite but non-Ivy college, my own experience is that the name alone boosts status, whether it be in a job interview, among friends/colleagues, or on a date.

In fact I'll bet that's where almost all the mileage from going to a selective college comes from: the ~15-20 "name" schools, small enough for you to make connections, and well-known enough for you to impress people you want to impress by mentioning them. That might explain the difficulty of finding an effect when looking at selectivity more broadly.

Posted by: qaz1231 | March 15, 2010 4:51 PM | Report abuse

Like the teenage, upper class boys who robbed a convenience store not too long ago, what were they thinking? Well--they weren't. Their brains are not yet developed to consider the consequences of their actions all the time. They act on impulse--it's symbolic of their age and stage of development. Mean and ends don't line up perfectly at that age.

And regarding the example set by their elders, it's not been a very pretty one for years. MCPS enables its administrators to ruin--oh I mean run--their kingdoms with little or no consequences. Show favortism, neglect a class of students--do whatever they want so long as they stay out of the headlines. Students will mimic their elders---the apple don't fall far from the tree---old sayings with meaning. Teach respect, trust and honesty and see what happens.

Posted by: goodjuli20031 | March 15, 2010 5:48 PM | Report abuse

The best way I've seen this handled was in a few classes I had in college; to prevent cheating, give assignments on which it's not possible to cheat. I've had take-home tests that were open-note, open-book, open-internet, open-classmate. I've had tests where the teacher gives a study guide containing every question on the test. (In fact, I barely passed some of those tests. They require a much better understanding of the subject matter than the "usual" kind.)

Posted by: BonnieCharles | March 15, 2010 5:59 PM | Report abuse

As an Advanced Placement teacher at a MD school known for being fairly competitive, I have had pretty good results re:cheating. It starts with being very clear about expectations and consequences.If I find a kid has quoted or lifted directly from a source without attribution or proper citations, I make them do the whole report over for partial credit or take a zero. They will not receive an A for a do-over, but they won't have a zero either and I work with them to make sure they understand exactly what I am objecting to so they can fix it. I never have repeat offenders. I make sure it is understood that I am not "being nice" by letting them do over and get partial credit. I want them to know what they did wrong and learn from the mistake.

Likewise, when I find that 2 students have turned in identical lab reports that were supposed to be done individually, same deal. Both have to do it over totally (I don't even ask who copied from whom)for partial credit. Homework questions are always written out by hand instead of being word processed (a very easy way to "share" work).The word gets out pretty quickly and they are careful (at least with me).

As for tests, I am lucky enough to have a test generator that will mix up the order of the multiple choice answers.The tests look identical unless inspected closely. At the top of the answer sheet (and on many assignments) is a statement to be signed that the work the student is turning in is their own as a reminder that I expect academic honesty.

Yes, all of this takes a little extra time and effort, but I have had students tell me they appreciate the reminder on tests and the atmosphere where it is an expectation that everyone will be honest about their work. Kids in high school are just that: kids, and they will make mistakes and show poor judgment at times and try to take the easy route offered by cheating.

Teachers need to be very thoughtful and purposeful in how we approach academic integrity. Right now we are reading articles about some of the "climate scandal" issues to illustrate to them that being honest about your work is important to more than your grade on a high school or college test. As a society we need to be able to trust all kinds of people to be honest with us in our daily lives.

Sadly, we cannot always test in ways we would like to such as essay tests where it is virtually impossible to cheat. AP Exams and State HSA tests are at least partially multiple choice so we have to prepare students for them.

Posted by: terplover | March 15, 2010 7:48 PM | Report abuse

One thing we can do is get rid of grades. Another is to make sure that everyone is aware of the research concerning motivation and punishments and rewards. Heck, if we're willing to go far enough, we could get rid of formal schooling too. There is a reason why homeschoolers and those who are exposed to unschooling don't feel the same need to take short cuts. (And I'm an atheist, so please don't give me heck about the religiously motivated who homeschool. There are some who don't do it well, but those who do it well, including some who may do it for religious reasons, do education better than anyone.)

Posted by: thesilverback | March 15, 2010 8:23 PM | Report abuse

One thing we can do is get rid of grades. Another is to make sure that everyone is aware of the research concerning motivation and punishments and rewards. Heck, if we're willing to go far enough, we could get rid of formal schooling too. There is a reason why homeschoolers and those who are exposed to unschooling don't feel the same need to take short cuts. (And I'm an atheist, so please don't give me heck about the religiously motivated who homeschool. There are some who don't do it well, but those who do it well, including some who may do it for religious reasons, do education better than anyone.)

Posted by: thesilverback | March 15, 2010 8:25 PM | Report abuse

Actually, cheaters see themselves (and to a large extent their classmates see them) as achieving all that is expected of them in high school. Most of high school consists of trying to get as high a grade as possible and collecting credits so you can go on to the next level. Teachers used to tell us that cheaters only cheat themselves because they never learn the material and that a low grade on a test just showed what we still needed to learn. But most of us didn't see any point to learning a lot of the material--face it, if you don't intend to go into a scientific field, do you need to balance a chemical equation?--and we never went back over tested material to pick up the missing knowledge, just forged ahead to the next unit. (In fact, occasionally when a teacher got sick or something, we didn't even get the tests or essays back until the next one was due.) Thus, the point of high school for most students is to have good grades recorded against your name, and you'll have to admit the students who hacked into the computer certainly did that. If you want to stop cheating, make the learning connected with some end besides acquiring credit.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | March 16, 2010 9:11 AM | Report abuse

Great article.
The hackers probably should be punished as they would in the adult world. 'Tis indeed no game there.
Colleges are concerned with plagiarism. As a senior English teacher I devote time to this serious issue.
When I have students who cheat I usually discuss it with them and expect improved behavior. Most of the time that works.
I mainly assign essays on specific classroom topics so there is little room for copying or borrowing from the web. I, too, give short quizzes that require close reading over homework.
Most people at one time or another in their lives have cheated. We need to show that one's self esteem and character are important to the students. Honesty is essential in life's journey. If they respect themselves, they will be conscientious to self and society and will have a worldview that will serve them well in all their future endeavors.

Posted by: tcjgettysburg | March 16, 2010 3:19 PM | Report abuse

There are so many good points made in these comments, it's hard to know what to address, but I do notice that proposed antidotes for cheating fall mostly into two categories: ferreting out and punishing cheaters and making cheating difficult through instructional methods. Given the choice, I would lean towards the latter, just because it is more preventative than punitive, but I believe that prevention can be more fundamental and come in much earlier in the process.

A combined focus on academics AND social and emotional learning (SEL) helps create classroom conditions that discourage cheating. When a classroom community is set up from day one to operate on the basis of values like mutual respect, responsibility, and fairness, children are not only more likely to evaluate their own behavior from an ethical standpoint, but also to consider how their behavior might affect others. I do think schools have a role to play in creating responsible citizens, and integrating social and emotional learning into academic curriculum is a way to do that. I know it's possible, because my company creates elementary curriculum that does it so seamlessly.

I can attest personally to the fact the Harvard stamp of approval ABSOLUTELY makes a difference. I can think of a dozen occasions upon which the Harvard B.A. on my resume has opened doors for me which would otherwise have remained closed (and locked!). On the other hand, I've entered work arenas wherein my college pedigree is completely irrelevant, and it's been my work ethic and my ability to collaborate and think creatively that have sealed positions for me. Those habits and ways of working can be taught and fostered in school.

Kenni Smith
Developmental Studies Center

Posted by: ConsciousSmith | March 16, 2010 6:32 PM | Report abuse

Great comments here. Might add, regarding Mr. Lanier's comments that often teachers will not permit tests to be taken home because they will be shared in the future. I recall a parent who crowed about a nephew in a grade above her son. She had every test from the previous year for her son to study. Furthermore, it wasn't out of the question to rehash previous papers written by the nephew and then have her son hand them in as if they were his own.

When my son was paired with this piece of work to do a project, he was less than thrilled. When they had to collaborate on a paper, my son realized the night before the paper was due that everything done by his "friend" was plagerized. My son informed the teacher the following day that he hoped that his grade would not be affected by the work of his friend.

Bottom line, if parents encourage cheating, there is little the teacher can do in the classroom. Ethics begins and ends in the home. Either your parents teach you to be ethical or they don't and NOTHING a teacher does will make a difference.

Posted by: 1voraciousreader | March 17, 2010 10:41 AM | Report abuse

One way to avoid the problems of students hacking online grades is for teachers to keep a hard copy of student grades. That way, they will know when changes have been made.

As for the more general issues of cheating on tests, I found it very helpful to make sure students knew exactly what I would be testing them on. This allowed me to define what was critical knowledge, versus material that would be nice to know.

I favored essay tests over multiple choice (an easy options for English teachers) and I usually had several different levels of difficulty in my regular classes, so students could decide how much to challenge themselves.

When it came to papeers, book reports, and research projects, I found having clear blueprints (both those I developed and those the students came up with in groups or individually) invaluable. That way, misconceptions or wrong headed approaches could be nipped in the bud and the students knew exactly what they were expected to do. Or as one young man said in a tone of wonder: "You mean you're going to tell us what to write?"

Why not? It pr4oduced better results and fostered mastery of skills through successful practice.

Finally, and other plagiarism detection sites are a useful tool for heading off cheating motivated by laziness.

Posted by: sfbraaten47 | March 17, 2010 1:56 PM | Report abuse

For jzsartucci--I meant that there are almost no low income students at Churchill. They are only about 2 percent of the student body, so they don't have much influence on school culture.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | March 19, 2010 4:45 PM | Report abuse

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