Monday, December 01, 2008

Study shows increase in high school student cheating


A recent study by the National Association of Secondary School Principals reports a steady increase in incidents of academic dishonesty in the nation’s secondary schools. All of this is reported in an AP story by David Crary, reported Nov. 30, 2008, link here. The story was printed on the December 1, 2008 Washington Post on p A6.

Close to two-thirds of students report having cheated on tests, and fewer admit to plagiarism. That represents a steady increase over time.

I could not find the study yet on that organization’s website, here. I did find an earlier blog entry from March 2008 here. Since the organization has a convention soon in 2009, the topic will surely come up again, and I expect that the organization will publish the study online soon.

The organization seems to have an older version of the site here. Wikipedia has only a stub article on the organization.

Some schools report that they don’t have a lot of problems with tests, but do find it on graded homework. Another problem concerns plagiarism. Teaching proper research and attribution of sources is a major objective of high school English classes, and is covered over the course of a number of term papers in high school years. In my day in the late 1950s, we went to public libraries and took notes on indexed cards. Today, the World Wide Web makes determining the proper attribution and quoting and paraphrase procedures important. School systems have to figure out the new legal environment, which is changing, before passing it on to kids. Instances of plagiarism probably occur because of lack of understanding of the concept (which must be taught first) rather than because of an intention to deceive.

College English classes for undergraduates intensify instruction of proper research. In a freshman English class at George Washington University in 1963, we had to write an "annotated bibliography" first on the term paper we would turn in later during the semester. I think that's an excellent teaching technique. In those days, professors collected papers back after grading them so that they could not wind up in "fraternity files."

Webmasters who write politically charged essays on controversial topics like gay rights often find that their own work on the web is plagiarized and used by kids. This has happened to me and several of my friends on the web (and even been brought to our attention by others). Teachers and school systems use “Turnitin.com” to check for plagiarism and sometimes encourage students to check their own work with the service.

The legal environment around plagiarism is complicated by the recent reports that some news services (especially the Associated Press) would like to restrict how bloggers use their articles. This was reported on my main blog June 22, 2008 here. It’s possible that this could eventually affect the topic of academic integrity, but it is still unclear. Copyright law does not allow protection of mere facts and ideas, even if gathered by a reported. But business law allows protection of “trade secrets” which might matter in journalism, sometimes. It's always a good idea, when summarizing a news story (in a blog or even an academic assignment), to add extra interpretation or to bring in other related material from at least one other distinct source.

When I went to school there was much less toleration of “cheating” than today. Many colleges had honor systems (and still have them). When I was teaching algebra at the University of Kansas as a graduate student in 1966, I gave an F in a course to a student who I caught cheating (by copying answers) on just one test. Grades were a sensitive issue in the 1960s because of the Vietnam era military draft: student deferments could protect someone from the draft altogether, and college degrees (especially in sciences) tended to lead to much less combat exposure if one were drafted. So “cheating” took on a whole extra dimension then, and tended to be met with a "zero tolerance" attitude. There was an attitude that you had to be "qualified" to survive war into adulthood!

Picture: Strong Hall, the University of Kansas in Lawrence.

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