Mama Madison: Cheating 101 at Middleton High School

Here's why students smart enough to be in calculus do the wrong thing

Late last semester, as students were packing up their backpacks one final time before winter break, Middleton High School principal Denise Herrmann and assistant principal Lisa Jondle were co-authoring a note home to parents informing them of a widespread cheating scandal involving nearly 250 calculus students at the school. In the letter, they explain the scope of the incidents, including the taking, sharing and selling of cell phone photos of exam questions.

The administrators close their letter by saying, "We feel fortunate to have a wonderful student body (at Middleton High) whose academic record on multiple assessments is top-notch. We are hopeful that through our collaborative efforts we can determine the root cause of talented students choosing to participate in dishonest academic practices. In January, we will host a series of focus groups including staff, students and parents to problem-solve short- and long-term solutions."

Ms. Herrmann and Ms. Jondle, I think I can save you lots of time on focus groups. I'm the parent of a high school student, albeit in Madison, and I have a pretty good inkling on the "root cause" of why "talented students" would choose to cheat.

It's because these students are reminded every day that every test matters. These kids all have access to on-line forums like College Confidentialthat tell them, in no uncertain terms, that if they want to get into a top-ranked college or university, they better take the most rigorous high school curriculum available to them, which means calculus, perhaps even AP calc. But to get to calculus at all in high school, a year of math has to be skipped somewhere. The standard high school sequence has pre-calc as the 12th grade norm -- so the jockeying for top dog status starts in elementary school.

Then, even if they make it to calculus by senior year (or before), they believe that a B in the class might mean the difference between getting admitted to that college of their dreams or losing out, and it might. Every one of these kids knows that getting one question too many wrong on the math section of the PSATs could mean they'll miss the statewide cutoff for National Merit Scholar. The academic pressure isn't manufactured; it's real.

And parents like me are part of the problem. I'd love to be able to ease off my son, who is currently a junior. I want to be able to tell him it's fine if he wants to take statistics next year, which he thinks sounds more interesting and practical, instead of calculus. But stats doesn't count as a math credit for college admissions; so then he'd only have three years of high school math on his transcript instead of the recommended four.

I wish I could tell him not to worry about taking another science class senior year, and let him focus on history and foreign language, his passions. He'd love to have time in his schedule to add German and Japanese to the Spanish and Latin he's already taking. But he's been advised (and don't get me wrong, I'm appreciative for the advice) that not completing a fourth year of science could be a big mistake come college application time this fall.

Ms. Herrmann and Ms. Jondle, you want to know the "root cause" of why "talented students" would choose to cheat? It's because many of them see high school as an enormous college prep thresher separating the high-flying wheat from the chaff. They feed off of each other's academic competitiveness and anxieties creating a Machiavellian, secondary school pressure cooker where the ends will always justify the means.

None of this, of course, is an excuse for cheating. The fact that this type of academic misconduct is rampant, not just in our area, but nationwide, is sickening.

But until colleges start offering scholarships for academic honesty as opposed to achievement, what happened at Middleton High School is bound to happen again.

I do, though, have one thought I could offer Middleton High for their focus group discussions. Perhaps they should,develop a required course on academic integrity and ethics. With no opportunities for Honors or AP designations. And no absolutely no grades involved.

It would, after all, be cheat-proof. And filled with some very valuable lessons.

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