Googling during exams.
In the Internet age, some schools have a new approach to cheating: Make it legal.
By ELLEN GAMERMAN
January 21, 2006
It was a situation every middle-school student dreads. Bonnie Pitzer was cruising through a vocabulary test until she hit the word "desolated" -- and drew a blank. But instead of panicking, she quietly searched the Internet for the definition.
At most schools, looking up test answers online would be considered cheating. But at Mill Creek Middle School in Kent, Wash., some teachers now encourage such tactics. "We can do basically anything on our computers," says the 13-year-old, who took home an A on the test.
In a wireless age where kids can access the Internet's vast store of information from their cell phones and PDAs, schools have been wrestling with how to stem the tide of high-tech cheating. Now, some educators say they have the answer: Change the rules and make it legal. In doing so, they're permitting all kinds of behavior that had been considered off-limits just a few years ago.
The move, which includes some of the country's top institutions, reflects a broader debate about what skills are necessary in today's world – and how schools should teach them. The real-world strengths of intelligent surfing and analysis, some educators argue, are now just as important as rote memorization.
The old rules still reign in most places, but an increasing number of schools are adjusting them. This includes not only letting kids use the Internet during tests, but in the most extreme cases, allowing them to text message notes or beam each other definitions on vocabulary drills.
Schools say they in no way consider this cheating because they're explicitly changing the rules to allow it.
In Ohio, students at Cincinnati Country Day can take their laptops into some tests and search online Cliffs Notes. At Ensign Intermediate School in Newport Beach, Calif., seventh-graders are looking at each other's hand-held computers to get answers on their science drills. And in San Diego, high-school students can roam free on the Internet during English exams.
The same logic is being applied even when laptops aren't in the classroom.
In Philadelphia, school officials are considering letting kids retake tests, even if it gives them an opportunity to go home and Google topics they saw on the first test. "What we've got to teach kids are the tools to access that information," says Gregory Thornton, the school district's chief academic officer. “‘Cheating’ is not the word anymore."
The changes -- and the debate they're prompting -- are not unlike the upheaval caused when calculators became available in the early 1970s.
Back then, teachers grappled with letting kids use the new machines or requiring long lines of division by hand. Though initially banned, calculators were eventually embraced in classrooms and, since 1994, have even been allowed in the SAT.
Of course, open-book exams have long been a fixture at some schools. But access to the Internet provides a far vaster trove of information than simply having a textbook nearby. And the degree of collaboration that technology is allowing flies in the face of some deeply entrenched teaching methods.
Grabbing test answers off the Internet is a "crutch," says Charles Alexander, academic dean at the elite Groton School in Massachusetts. In the college world, where admissions officers keep profiles of secondary schools and consider applicants based on the rigor of their training, there are differing opinions. "This is the way the world works," says Harvard Director of Admissions Marlyn McGrath Lewis, adding that whether a student was allowed to search the Internet for help on a high-school English exam wouldn't affect his or her application.
GREAT MOMENTS IN CHEATING HISTORY
Throughout history, new social mores -- and advances in technology -- have altered what it means to cheat. Take a look at some notable moments in the history of cheating. Though it might not ultimately factor into a student's acceptance at University of Pennsylvania, Lee Stetson, dean of undergraduate admissions there, has a different take. "The definition of what's cheating has been changing, and fudging seems to be the way of the world now," he says. "It's not an encouraging sign."
At High Tech High International, a charter school in San Diego, kids in Ross Roemer's 10th-grade humanities class are allowed to scan the Internet during some tests; earlier this week, they looked up what scholars had written about Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray" while they were writing their essay exams.
Mr. Roemer says students' essays are better informed when they can compare their ideas with what others have written. But he acknowledges that traditionally an approach like this would be against the rules. "You'd have to rip up their test and call their parents," he says. But at this school, which is funded partly by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, he says there's no sense fighting technology: "You can't ignore it. You have to embrace it."
When the Kent School District in Washington decided last year to create a technology "school within a school" at Mill Creek Middle, where there'd be a 1-to-1 ratio of kids to computers, parents quickly began pushing to get their kids accepted. Now, teachers say letting kids look up answers online helps show they can find and analyze information then synthesize it into a cohesive argument.
In Bonnie Pitzer's case, teacher Becky Keene says using the Internet helped the seventh-grader, but in the end, she aced the test because she demonstrated she could also use the word in a sentence. "I want the kids to be able to apply the meaning, not to be able to memorize it," says Ms. Keene.
Karen Waples says she's teaching her students the skills to work with others in an era of information sharing. The AP government teacher at Cherry Creek High School outside Denver has kids team up on some of their exams -- even when they're multiple choice. It doesn't hurt, she adds, that it has the side benefit of relieving the stress that students say comes from keeping all the answers in their heads. Ms. Waples, who was originally encouraged to try this by a fellow teacher, says she hopes to spread the technique to other classrooms this year with the backing of the principal. "I tell them it's closed-book, open friend," she says.
Some schools are only partially embracing the new tools for test taking.
Sixth-graders in Nancy Dean's class at Aire Libre Elementary School in Phoenix used their new Palm hand-helds to beam each other answers to an exercise on "The Toothpaste Millionaire" earlier in the school year. But Ms. Dean stops short at administering more serious tests on them for the time being; when and if she does, she'll step up her classroom patrol.
"It's real easy for me to spot a student who has roaming eyes -- but a student can hit 'beam' and I won't know it," she says. "You have to be careful."
These uses of technology are part of a broader shift in academic rules that has been underway for several years. Educators say the concept of "collaborative learning," which has students working in groups and essentially answering test questions or tackling assignments for each other, continues to gain currency. Its proponents say it can help teach group skills and critical thinking.
A similar argument is being used to support widespread access to the Internet, and even to other classmates, during testing. By some estimates, at least seven million new Web pages are added every day. In a competitive global labor market, where white-collar jobs are increasingly outsourced to other countries, being able to find and synthesize information about the World Bank could be more crucial than memorizing the date it opened.
Failing to teach kids how to navigate in the knowledge economy, says Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Frank Levy, "is like putting them on the track with the locomotive."
Technology companies see an opportunity. Last month SparkNotes, which offers online summaries and analyses of books popular on high-school required reading lists, branched out with the launch of SparkMobile. The service lets students stuck on English essays send SOS messages from their cell phones: Type in "Gatsby themes" and a text-message comes back reading: "the decline of the American dream." The company recently made the service available on iPods, and an audio version debuted last week. The cost to download an audio summary of "Pride and Prejudice": $3.95.
Dan Weiss, publisher of SparkNotes, which is owned by Barnes & Noble, says the company isn't selling directly to schools but does plan to promote the new technology to school librarians and teachers at coming education conferences. "We provide a lot of free copies of everything and get teachers to sample the material," he says. "We persuade them."
But if text-messaging test answers isn't cheating, what is? Educators agree that copying whole passages from other writers without citing them constitutes plagiarism. Beyond that, schools say the shift places a bigger burden on teachers to make the rules crystal clear -- especially when some permit sharing answers and others don't. Students in Ms. Waples's class at Cherry Creek High who try talking to friends during tests in other classes are likely to get the same punishment as ever: an "F" and the possibility of suspension.
There are even new twists on the old open-book test. At Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., teacher Temba Maqubela has started giving students an option on their environmental chemistry tests: They can take the exams with their notes and an open book, but they'll get no higher than a B even if they get everything right. "There's no shame in not knowing the answers," says Mr. Maqubela, who has been lobbying the head of the department and plans to champion this kind of testing more heavily next year. "I have a feeling some of them might warm up to it."
Of course, when it comes to some of the most critical evaluations students face, such as Advanced Placement tests and the SAT, there's no Internet surfing allowed. And from graduate school entrance exams to real-world job interviews, people are expected to perform solo. Indeed, a major issue in education right now is an increased reliance on standardized testing fueled by the federal No Child Left Behind law.
Letting kids get answers from each other or online is also a luxury critics say only elite schools with high-performing kids can afford.
Most of the new testing techniques are taking place at private or well-funded public schools, with individual teachers taking the initiative on some exams, and even applying for grants to do so.
But the technology available to help students is rising so fast that some in academia are quietly admitting that fighting it might be a losing battle. In Philadelphia, public-school English teachers estimate they spend more than 20% of their time checking essays for plagiarism – time they could be spending actually teaching, according to the district's Mr. Thornton. Indeed, despite a nationwide crackdown on everything from camera phones to drugs that help students' test performances, three in four high-school students still admit to cheating. The number admitting to plagiarizing from the Internet in particular quadrupled between 1999 and 2005, according to studies by Donald McCabe, a professor at Rutgers Business School.
For Oren Kantor, a senior at the private Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., his teacher's group work assessments make it "easier to get a better grade." A member of the golf team who was recently accepted early admission to the University of Florida, Oren says he wouldn't have had time for 18 holes of golf last week if he'd had to prepare alone for a project on Hamlet. His group gave a PowerPoint presentation and sang a song they'd found online: "To be or not to be, that's the question I'm digestin' in my soliloquy." They got an A.
Corrections & Amplifications:
The Bowmar 901b hand-held electronic calculator, released in 1971, reached the market before the Texas Instruments TI-2500, released in 1972. A chart accompanying this article incorrectly said the TI-2500 was the first hand-held electronic calculator.
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