I have in recent weeks found myself engaged in a covert war with my students over their clandestine use of cell phones and texting to cheat on tests.
Students apparently are using their phones to record test questions, and then texting them to students taking the exams in later classes. I have suspected this for some time, but have not been able to actually catch one in the act. Young people are extraordinarily clever with those little devices, and can operate them with one hand, without looking at the keyboard. Phones are banned at school and carry a three day suspension for possession, but huge numbers of students conceal them in their clothing—in their waistbands, under sweaters and shirts, and for the girls—in their huge faux-designer handbags. It’s impossible to know whether a kid is scratching his armpit, or texting under the shirt.
A recent email from a concerned parent has, however, confirmed my suspicions of their actions, and I now am preparing for a full scale assault. The problem is how to stop the practice without without being overt, or resorting to more secure, but less equitable and educationally sound procedures.
Every teacher has their students clear the desks before a test and put their material under their chairs. But that doesn’t’ stop the hidden phones. Moreover, simply demanding that they stop and spending my time trying to catch them is just silly. The students will win that war, and a primary strategic rule is never to get engaged in a battle that you can’t win. If I become the cell phone gestapo, they still will manage to sneak them under my nose. And every student that gets away with using their phone just makes me look weak and ineffective—not a good position when you’re in a tank filled with sharks.
Administering different tests to different classes doesn’t strike me as fair. No matter how hard I try, I won’t be able to equalize the difficulty or focus of the material. Even if the material is the same, rewording a question can have an effect on the outcome. Parents these days come with lawyers attached, and if one gets the idea that her kid’s test was more difficult than her neighbors’, I will hear about it from administration.
I’m therefore left with offering different versions of the same test—mixing up the order of the questions, and the answer choices (In this age of high-stakes testing, data collection and disaggregation, all tests now are multiple choice). While that doesn’t solve the problem of question leakage, it at least prevents someone from texting out answer letters for others to memorize. On the next test day therefore, I will have four different versions in play.
I’m saddened that I have to spend such time working on such counter-measures. There always has been cheating in schools but it was for the most part confined to the truly desperate. Moreover, the available methods were well-known and relatively easy to police: crib sheets, writing on forearms, stolen tests and so on. Technology has made it so much easier and thus more widespread.
While the willingness of large numbers of my students to lie, cheat and steal is appalling, it is in no way surprising. After all, they have learned to do so from adults who lie, cheat and steal with impunity. Everyone is looking to cut corners, and cheating is only wrong if you get caught. Our entire culture seems based on the notion of success without effort. Public figures seem to lie instinctively. And our culture is rotten with the notion that—if you want or need something—you have the right to take it from someone else. At any given moment the US Congress and the current occupant of the White House are engaged in wholesale intergenerational theft, borrowing trillions to pay for current desires and effectively taking money from the pockets of children before they have even had a chance to earn it.
The whole affair really makes me appreciate the values of the game of golf. There is nothing easy about golf, and there are no shortcuts to success. Golfers work hard not to take anything away form other players, avoiding putting lines, staying silent when shots are made, and helping “opponents” find their balls. Honesty is at the core of the game. Professionals will call a penalty on themselves, even though it may cost them tens of thousands of dollars—or even their very livelihood, as in the case of JP Hayes, who called a penalty that cost him his Tour card.
How different from today’s populace was the attitude of Bobby Jones, who, having been praised for calling a penalty on himself said “You might as well praise a man for not robbing a bank.” Golfers who subscribe to the values of the game realize that in cheating, they are their own victims.
If only I could get my students to understand that. So many of them believe that it’s acceptable to cheat to get good grades, because that will get them into a good college with scholarships. But with a horizon that extends only as far as the next hour, they don’t understand the future costs. At some point, they will be unable to lie, cheat and steal their way through a class or job and will hit a wall, having few actual skills or knowledge to fall back on.
For my own children, my hope is that they absorb more of the values of golf than of American Idol, Wall Street, government entitlement leeches and our political class. Like the game, it won’t always be easy, but it will be rewarding.