Gaming the System

Published: February 8, 2010

By Jim Lichtman
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Just when I thought I finished covering high school cheating, I received word from former Washington Post columnist, current high school teacher Colman McCarthy about the latest scandal taking place at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, Maryland.

According to the Post (Feb. 5) disciplinary action will be taken “…against seven students who were allegedly involved in a computer-hacking scheme in which grades were changed, according to a letter sent home Friday by the school’s principal.”

Dana Tofig, a spokesman for the school said, “It appears we have about a half-dozen students who knew what was going on, and we’re trying to determine the levels of their involvement.”

However, McCarthy told me that he had heard that students not only “raised their own grades, [but allegedly] lowered the grades of kids they didn’t like and demanded money from students who wanted higher grades.”

“Tofig,” the Post continued, “said school officials think software that tracks keystrokes was put on teachers’ computers via a plug-in USB device to obtain the passwords used to access the online grading system.

“The 2,100-student school has a 98 percent graduation rate, 11 points higher than Montgomery [County] as a whole. Its average SAT scores were 1820 of a possible 2400 in the 2008-09 school year, the second-highest in the county.”

Sadly, all those noteworthy stats get thrown into a big bucket of doubt with just some of the obvious questions the scandal raises:  How long has the grade-changing been going on?  How many students were involved?  And how many other students have been involved in other forms of cheating?

Many, including myself, wondered how college admissions officers would review students involved in such a scheme.

Sally Rubenstone who writes the “Ask the Dean” column for College Confidential, a Web site offering information to both students and parents on all aspects of finding and getting into a college, says “Typically, admission officials can be forgiving when the infraction in question falls under the ‘follies of youth’ rubric (smoking in the bathroom, sharing a beer beneath the bleachers). But offenses like this one, or any other violation that casts aspersion on the perpetrator’s character, are usually deal-breakers at selective colleges.”

One of the most blatant examples of cheating was reported by The New York Times in December 2006.  “…Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism is looking into whether students may have cheated on the final exam in… a course, [entitled]Critical Issues in Journalism. According to the school’s Web site, the course ‘explores the social role of journalism and the journalist from legal, historical, ethical, and economic perspectives,’ with a focus on ethics.”

That’s right, cheating on an ethics test!

“‘It’s going to affect us for years to come,’ said [journalism student] Jack Gillum,” the Times wrote. “‘…it makes me really angry,’ he added… and does not want his degree to be devalued.’”

“What’s going to happen when you go for a job interview?” said Caroline Preston.

And those are only some of the negative consequences students, teachers and school officials’ face.  However, what’s worse is the apparent lack of responsibility by students and others who knew the cheating was going on and remained silent.

In the 1943 Western, The Oxbow Incident, Henry Fonda is one of a posse of men who have come across three men who, by circumstantial evidence, appear to be guilty of both cattle rustling and murder.  However, Fonda’s character is not completely convinced.  When he tries to make the case for bringing the men in and letting the Sheriff decide, the posse’s leader says, “This is only slightly any of your business!”

“Hanging’s any man’s business that’s around,” Fonda’s character tells him.

It’s the same with unethical conduct.  Ethics is everyone’s business.  If we’re ever going to change unethical conduct, all of us need to participate in the solution.

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