Dr. Vicki Cohen, Interim Dean at Fairleigh Dickenson University, discusses how to stop cheating in high schools.
A senior at Tenafly High School, regarded as one of the best high schools in northern New Jersey, had a common dream: He pinned his collegiate hopes on admission to an Ivy League university.
Still, the student apparently feared his transcript wouldn’t be impressive enough to make the grade.
So, the 16-year-old allegedly found an opportune moment in October to breach the school district’s computer system and raise several of his grades and his overall GPA. Then he sent out college applications with the allegedly doctored transcripts, school officials said.
But the district soon discovered the scheme, suspended the student from school and rescinded his college applications, said school officials. Tenafly police were asked to investigate and the Board of Education filed two charges against the student in juvenile court, said police. Other authorities then joined the probe.
“The Prosecutor’s Office is assisting the Tenafly Police Department with the investigation” of the computer breach, Tenafly Police Chief Robert Chamberlain told The Record and NorthJersey.com in a telephone interview. He stressed that he could release very little information about the case because it’s an active investigation involving a juvenile.
The incident is another episode in what experts — and concerned Tenafly parents — say is a developing story about suburban students questing for perfection, no matter the cost.
Pressure to succeed, no matter how
Experts assert that cheating is an increasingly widespread phenomenon, even among the brightest students at the nation’s top schools.
Ashley Kipiani of Wyckoff, an educator who has tutored high schoolers for more than 15 years, notes that the pressure to cheat is higher today as students aspire for a perfect grade point average, AP credits and a ticket into a top college.
Cheating is also easier in today’s high tech world than it was years ago when students had to peer over their shoulders at their classmate’s test paper, or write test answers on their arms, she said.
“The ease of cheating is much greater now,” said Kipiani, who in January will launch Class A Tutoring, a mobile application that will allow students to request a tutor on demand. “They can take a quick picture with their cellphone and send it to their peers.”
Parents and teachers unknowingly support a cheating culture by giving positive reinforcement to students for a good grade, rather than doing what is right and putting forth effort, Kipiani said.
“Kids are subconsciously confusing what’s ethical today,” Kipiani said.
A group of Tenafly parents has banded together to address a growing culture of student pressure.
Katie Janssen, is a co-founder of RHOWR (Rational Homework Review), a group of Tenafly Public School parents who are say they are “concerned about the role of homework among the stressors impacting students.” Janssen, a parent of a tenth grader at Tenafly High School, asserted that students at the school are under too much pressure.
“There’s too much negative and destructive stress in the school in general,” she said, adding that teachers should curtail the amount and kinds of homework they assign in order to decrease the stress level among students. “It’s a myth that reducing the stress would lower the level of the school ranking or quality of education.”
In an environment in which students feel stressed or that they can’t measure up to everyone up, cheating may be more likely to occur, Janssen said.
Ilana Matteson, a mother of a Tenafly High School junior, said it’s difficult to find the balance when parents want a competitive school district as well as children with a healthy lifestyle.
“When my daughter got sick, she felt so pressured about missing class that she went to school anyway because she felt she couldn’t take a sick day from school,” said Matteson.
Her daughter, Emily, does homework on weekends, Thanksgiving, and over winter break, she said, adding that it has impacted family vacations.
“She never gets a chance to one hundred percent de-stress and walk away,” Matteson said, equating the culture of pressure on students to the stresses adults cope with in today’s workplace.
Matteson asserted that the senior who allegedly cheated was clearly motivated by academic pressure.
“He went to such lengths to change what he perceived to be a problem,” she said. “This is an indicator to us all that these kids need help and guidance with regard to managing their stress.”
In a survey of over 4,000 high school students worldwide, the Santa Clara, California-based computer security firm McAfee found that more than 60 percent said they knew of other students who use electronic and mobile devices to cheat.
“There’s a ubiquity of devices and we are always using them. It’s not as hard as you might think to use them to get around systems,” said Gary Davis, Chief Consumer Security Evangelist at McAfee, which develops digital security tools for computers and mobile devices.
In a study by the Josephson Institute of Ethics in Playa del Rey, California, 51 percent of the 23,000 high schoolers interviewed admitted they had cheated on a test and felt “satisfied” with their behavior.
Cheating is rampant and high schools don’t care very much or else they would do something to discourage it,” said Michael Josephson, president of the Josephson Institute, which develops services and materials to increase ethical commitment and practice in society. “The students go on to college and life believing this behavior is acceptable.”
Probe launched in October; charges filed
Tenafly High School launched its investigation last month after a guidance counselor noticed the young man’s transcript had been altered. The school district determined that Genesis, its student management system and Naviance, which is the system used by colleges to access student grades and transcripts for admissions, had been breached and identified the origin of the unauthorized access, said district officials.
In a Nov. 3 email that was sent out to district parents, Tenafly High School principal James Morrison wrote that “the School Counseling Department reviewed all transcripts to confirm that the identified hack was limited to the subject of the investigation. It was determined that the integrity of all other THS students’ transcripts and records was not compromised.”
On the heels of the computer breach, a cyber security firm from Washington, D.C. was brought into the district to beef up its cyber security and prevent future problems, said School Superintendent Geoffrey Gordon.
Chamberlain confirmed that the Board of Education filed two criminal charges against the student in Bergen County Juvenile Court in early November.
Tenafly High School is frequently ranked high on New Jersey’s top high school lists, coming in at 20 in this year’s U.S. News and World Report listing for schools with the highest rate of college readiness.
“Last year, 80 percent of our students got into schools that were rated the most selective in the country,” boasted Gordon, adding that the high school has a 100 percent graduation rate.
Board of Education President Lynn Stewart said that the Tenafly School district has a no tolerance policy for cheaters. “The policy regarding cheating is that if a student is caught, he will be suspended. The length of the suspension depends on the nature of the cheating,” said Stewart.
While cheating has long been a pervasive problem in many schools, Gordon said this particular episode — assuming the student is guilty — is particularly disturbing.
Stewart recalled incidents in Tenafly in which students have accessed tests and Gordon recalled that in a district where he previously worked, students tried to sneak into a math exam with formulas.
“That’s pretty typical,” Gordon said about their mode of cheating.
A student breaking into a district’s computer system, however, is not typical, Gordon said, adding that he does not believe a breach of this kind has ever occurred in Tenafly schools.
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