Academic Epidemic

High school students continue to find ways to break CESJDS’ academic honesty policy in order to brighten their transcripts to compete in today’s hyper-competitive college admissions process.

JDS administrators and teachers recently have been fostering more discussion about academic dishonesty in order to combat its spread. However, JDS’ culture of collaboration and of taking advantage of every given resource, including technology, has proven to be a threat to the academic integrity of its students.

The Academic Honesty Policy:

Throughout JDS’ existence, its academic honesty policy has adapted with the times. The school has incorporated new rules to combat the use of technology, worked with students to input their opinions and looked into the policies of nearby schools and the studies on which they are based.

JDS’ current policy classifies academic dishonesty as cheating, plagiarism or unauthorized collaboration and explains the punishments for violating the policy. Students can retake an assignment for up to 50 percent on their first breach, receive a “zero” on the assignment on their second breach and get a “zero” and self-report their violation on their college application on their third breach.

Parents are also a part of the process; they receive a note on the first breach and meet with administrators on the second and third breaches. According to Dean of Academics Aileen Goldstein, JDS bases its policy on that of the Center for Student Conduct at the University of California at Berkeley.

“It is our job as a school and especially as a Jewish institution to raise the next generation to be honest, take responsibility for their actions and to be thoughtful, intentional and forthright about their own work,” Goldstein said.

Student Culture:

Thirty-four out of 59 high school students who responded to an end-of-year Lion’s Tale survey have cheated. Thirty-one collaborated when not allowed to, 21 plagiarized, and 49 saw one of their peers break the academic honesty policy. Of those 49 students, only two have reported the person that they have seen. This means that over 50 percent of JDS students that participated in the poll have broken its academic honesty policy. In the 2018-2019 school year, when the poll was administered, 355 students were enrolled in high school.

As of May, there were only 60 recorded instances of academic honesty violations over the past two years, showing just how many incidents go unnoticed.

There has been a resurgence in cheat-sheets, or unauthorized materials brought into testing with material on them, but Goldstein and Atwood affirm that collaboration and abusing extended time are most rampant. Plagiarism, meanwhile, has decreased in recent years.

“It’s kind of like an epidemic. I will be shocked if someone doesn’t take the opportunity to cheat if they can,” Catherine* said. “Why aren’t you taking advantage of all the resources you can?”

A substitute teacher caught Catherine using a cheat-sheet on a make-up test during Structured Study Hall last year. She used her extension pass to postpone the test in order to study for standardized testing, but she was unprepared when the test finally came around.

Cheat sheets and other unauthorized materials are not the only way students cheat on tests. Students with extended time take their tests at two separate times, leaving them with the opportunity to review after taking the first part of their tests.

According to senior Maya Bellas, some students with extended time will push off finishing their tests in order to study more or they will correct parts of the test that they have already completed during their second test sessions. Other students will intentionally skip school on test days in order to study more and gain an advantage over others.

JDS is not the only school plagued with academic dishonesty. According to the International Center for Academic Integrity, in both high schools and universities in the U.S., more than half of all students admit to breaching their academic integrity in some form.

In the Center’s survey of over 70,000 high school students, 64 percent of high school students admitted to cheating on a test, 58 percent admitted to plagiarism, and 95 percent admitted to cheating in some form or fashion. Fourty-three percent of 17,000 polled graduate students admitted to cheating and 68 percent of 71,300 polled undergraduate students admitted to it.

The Committee:

Because JDS values honesty and integrity, teachers, guidance counselors and administrators formed a committee to research academic honesty at JDS and around the country in order to find ways to counter the growing issue.

“There’s a troubling amount of violations of the academic honesty policy, and we’ve noticed as a faculty a growing trend, particularly in the area of collaboration,” history teacher and chair of the committee Carl Atwood said.

Although the committee, which unofficially goes by the name, “Academic Honesty Committee,” has not implemented any changes so far, it spent most of last year researching academic honesty and learning about the policies of schools around the globe.

Research has included surveying JDS departments and learning about their unique challenges, looking at past data, polling student groups and faculty and comparing JDS’ history of academic dishonesty with “national statistics and trends,” according to Atwood.

“I think there’s a lot of ways where students have a lack of clarity about what is or is not academically honest, or what does academic integrity really mean or look like in different situations,” Atwood said.

To both Goldstein and Atwood, collaboration is seen as a gray area where proper instructions are often not communicated to students. In one situation last year, six students were accused of improper collaboration even though they may not have broken the academic honesty code.

According to Goldstein, the students were allowed to work together on notes in class, but they had an individual writing assignment at home. It was possible that their writing was similar due to their shared notes or because they actually did collaborate at home.

Teachers are trying to find ways to combat academic dishonesty in the gray area. Jewish history teacher Dr. Daniel Rosenthal structures his assignments in order to minimize ways that students will breach the policy.

For example, Rosenthal gives different assignments to different students, ensures that assignments focus on individual writing rather than general knowledge and requires students to document their research and writing processes to ensure that they complete all of their required work.

“My thought is that we can understand why students feel pressured to do something that cuts corners with their academic work, so the approach that I take is to find every way to make that less possible and to give students the time to do work properly,” Rosenthal said. “There’s no benefit to work that is academically dishonest; it doesn’t help anyone.”

Bellas agrees with Rosenthal’s methods; she believes that teachers need to do more to curb many students’ inherent instincts to cheat.

“When it comes to extended time and when it comes to testing, I think teachers need to just have their guard up a little bit more, understanding that we are teenagers, and this is a very real thing,” Bellas said. “It’s very much [taking place] at our school, so by making sure that students are looking at their own papers and that students with extended time are taking their tests on time, I think that’s just a step to having … more academic integrity in our whole school.”

An Honor Board:

Some schools, however, have other methods of countering academic dishonesty, such as enforcing harsher punishments and having honor boards. An honor board is a committee of nominated or elected students who review academic dishonesty cases and provide their school’s administration with advice on what punitive measures should be carried out.

Although JDS’ administration has considered implementing an honor board, students have resisted the idea.

“Every time in our history since [Dean of Students Roslyn] Landy has been here that we have raised it, the students have opposed the idea or have said, … ‘We will not rat out our friends; we do not want to be put in that position,’” Goldstein said.

According to Goldstein, honor boards can often be too strict as well because they believe that their own integrity is being challenged by the cases that they observe.

The Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C. has an honor board consisting of two elected members from each grade. Whenever a breach of the school’s academic honesty policy occurs, the honor board and supervising teachers convene to discuss the breach. Although their decision is just a recommendation for the school’s administration, administrators do actually take them into consideration.

Sidwell senior Lance Duncan believes that having an honor board is an essential part of giving students fair punishments for their wrongdoings.

“I do think that there is definitely value in having student input when important decisions are being made regarding honor code violations. I think it’s good to hold students accountable,” Duncan said.

Although students are required to judge other students within Sidwell’s honor board, members have faced little resentment from other students.

“One thing that I definitely think is good, from my experience at Sidwell, I’ve never seen backlash to a student on honor committee from a student in question,” Duncan said. “The honor committee, from what I understand, is very good at keeping matters private.”

Future Plans:

Curbing the spread of academic dishonesty is not a hopeless cause. Even though 24 percent of the Classes of 2019 and 2020 have had at least one incident of academic dishonesty, the creation of the Academic Honesty Committee is just the start of a long process of finding solutions.

Ideas such as creating an honor board are being tossed around, and primary issues such as collaboration and extended time abuse are being addressed. Faculty and the committee are having meetings about changing and enforcing the current policy.

Even with many possible solutions, one factor is key in stopping academic dishonesty: the decision to commit such an act. When someone is stressed about their grades and is up late studying, cheating or collaborating often seem like the easiest and most effective paths to take.

“How can we [the teachers] help you? How can we help you make better choices when it’s 11:30 p.m., and you’re working on the fourth of your five assignments that are due tomorrow? What can we do to help you make choices that you’re proud of?” Atwood said. “How can we make it safe for you to say to yourself, ‘You know what? Maybe I’ll turn this in a day late.’ Or maybe you can’t complete it tonight, but how can we help you make choices that will reflect the integrity that we hope you have?”

*Name has been changed to respect the student’s privacy

This story was featured in Volume 37, Issue 1 print edition of The Lion’s Tale, published on Aug. 27, 2019.