Palo Alto High School Principal Kim Diorio says she wants to send a strong message about school culture with the unveiling this month of a new "academic integrity" policy for the school.
Teachers were to discuss the new policy in staff meetings this week before presenting it to all Paly students in school-wide discussions set for Aug. 29, she said.
While the new policy offers greater clarity than before on what constitutes cheating and what the specific consequences are, Diorio said it does not address larger questions concerning "what we're doing as a system that makes kids feel they have to" cheat.
"How do you create an environment where getting a B or a C is an option as opposed to getting an A? That's really hard," she said in an interview Aug. 1.
The tougher questions -- involving homework load and "grading for learning versus grading to rank students" -- are "conversations we need to have as a school," she said.
Meanwhile, a student has called for local schools to tackle the root causes of cheating in the wake of a Paly incident in May that forced Diorio to invalidate more than 100 algebra finals after cheating was discovered.
The May incident at Paly was just one manifestation of a "larger culture of dishonesty in Palo Alto caused by incredible pressure to perform well academically in our district," Vivian Zhou, a junior at Gunn High School, wrote in a letter to the editor published July 11 in the Palo Alto Weekly.
Work on Paly's new academic honesty policy began more than a year ago, well before the cheating incident in May.
Diorio said discussion about aspects of school culture that could contribute to students' temptations to cheat will be considered as part of a self-assessment Paly will undertake this fall in preparation for renewal of its seven-year accreditation with the Western Association of Schools & Colleges.
"We as teachers can say that ('don't cheat') to our kids, but the students just feel there's so much pressure to go to the elite universities. It's a shame," she said.
Zhou said certain forms of cheating -- such as verbal exchanges of information about contents of a test -- are a common practice that's not even considered cheating by some students.
Students don't necessarily share a common understanding of what, exactly, constitutes cheating and that they hear incomplete and inconsistent messaging from the schools, she said in a phone interview.
"Before a test teachers will say, 'We don't want cheating; we're all honest here,' but there's actually very little discussion about what exactly it is," Zhou said. "There's the handbook, but we don't go over it in school or anything. They try to discourage us from being dishonest, but it's not a complete discussion."
She suggested that a mandatory online class covering the specifics of academic integrity and penalties for cheating could be helpful for all students, particularly so or English-language learners who are new to the country.
More importantly, steps to ease Palo Alto's high-stakes academic culture -- for example, by having teachers coordinate test schedules, as they do in middle school -- could make a difference, Zhou said, citing research by Stanford University senior lecturer Denise Clark Pope.
"She (Pope) talks about how we have this thing where results are the most important and the means to get there are not as important," Zhou said. "We've got to have perfect test scores and a great transcript, and to get there sometimes the means get a little murky."
Pope, who has extensively researched the culture of high-achieving high schools, said studies indicate between 80 percent and 95 percent of high school students admit to some form of cheating.
She cites multiple studies, including a 2010 Josephson Institute of Ethics survey of 43,000 public and private high school students in which 59 percent said they'd cheated on a test in the past year and more than 80 percent admitted to having copied another student's homework. In 2011, David Wangaard and Jason Stephens of the School for Ethical Education surveyed 3,600 high school students and found that 95 percent reported engaging in some form of cheating during the previous year.
The most common forms of cheating are copying another student's work, allowing another student to copy work, getting questions or answers from another student prior to a test and working collaboratively when asked not to, Pope said.
"If you ask students, they'll say 'We know it's wrong to cheat,'" Pope said in an interview. "Everybody knows it's wrong, but they feel that getting the A is more important, so they compromise their values.
"They'll even say to us, 'My parents would be really upset to know that I cheated, but they'd be more upset if I didn't get an A.' That's how the kids are perceiving the parents' value system because of the messages they're receiving from their families, the schools, the colleges and the system writ large," Pope said.
"They have this sort of continuum, where they'll say, 'I know that buying an exam or breaking in and changing grades are really egregious, but if someone just happens to tell me a question on the test, I can live with that.' It literally is this continuum, where kids will say, 'I'd never do that, but I'd do that' -- they're making these granular value choices on a daily basis," Pope said.
How schools teach and assess "has a big impact on cheating," she said. There's less motivation to cheat with project-based learning done in the classroom, where students cannot download answers from the Internet and the teacher can see all the iterations of the work.
"More frequent, lower-stakes assessments and performance-based assessments also help," she said, "and parents need to do the same.
They need to explain to the kid that it's more important to be
honest and have integrity, even if that means you're not going to get as high a grade. Most parents, if you ask them, will say, 'Of course,' but that's not necessarily the message they're sending."
She pointed to Saint Francis High School in Mountain View as a model of a school that has taken steps to "make the honor code part of its culture," including clearly defining cheating, being transparent about enforcement and discipline and allowing students to learn from their mistakes.
Students sign the honor code on all major exams and large assignments, which reinforces the culture, she said.
"It starts with education," Pope said. "When students are aware of the issues and consequences and feel well-supported, many infractions can be prevented and, when it happens, students can learn from their mistake instead of having a fear-based system that results in lying."
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