More than 40 percent of Naperville Unit District 203 high school students apparently don't think it's cheating to get the questions or answers before taking a test.
District officials say that was just one of the findings of a survey they conducted between the fall of 2010 and the fall of 2011 that included 4,844 high school students, 302 staff members and 347 parents.
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The results of that survey are among the driving forces behind a district task force's push to create an academic integrity policy that spells out values and concepts and outlines tiered consequences for those caught cheating.
Naperville North Principal Kevin Pobst said the need for such a policy became evident in 2009.
"At the end of the 2009 first semester we had some instances of collaborative cheating on some exams at North and we looked at administrative procedures we had," Pobst said. "They did not serve our purposes very well. We wanted to have a document that we could use to teach academic integrity. And the existing language in our handbooks did not facilitate that.
"We also wanted to put students in a position where they were self-directed, where they understood the values and concepts behind academic integrity so they could sort out what the right thing and wrong thing to do was in any situation."
But first, administrators had to find out what they were up against in terms of views on cheating throughout the community. That's when they conducted the survey.
Naperville Central Assistant Principal Jackie Thornton said students were given a list of possible academic integrity violations and were asked to respond whether they themselves had ever participated in such activities. They also were asked how serious of an offense they believed each violation to be.
"The survey results showed students self-reported behaviors at a level much higher than we consider acceptable," Thornton said. "About 54 percent of students at Central and North reported they have cheated in some capacity. And only 42 percent responded that cheating is never justified." Thornton said.
"We saw a substantial discrepancy between what students thought and what the staff and parents thought in terms of cheating behavior," she said, "but there was alignment between what staff and parents thought."
In one particular example, students were asked, "Is it cheating to get a question or answer for a test from a student who has already taken the test?"
Thornton said only 41 percent of students said the example described an act of cheating, while 91 percent of parents and staff said it was.
Pobst said the revelation made it clear to administrators they need to define cheating in a way that also allows them to teach students the values and concepts of honesty. But they also need a clearly defined set of consequences.
"We had one consequence for all kinds of cheating and that was (getting) a zero (on the test or assignment)," Pobst said. "That's it."
The academic integrity policy is not yet complete or official, but the proposed consequences are outlined in a tiered system.
Level 1 is designed to deal with activities such as homework and practice assignments. Level 2 is set to deal with quizzes, tests and multiple violations. Level 3 consequences are for the most egregious offenses, such as stealing a test or making a test available on the Internet.
Proposed consequences for the first two levels range from a dean's referral to a letter placed in the student's file, but also can include loss of scholarship money. Consequences for the third, most serious level, include all level two consequences and possible expulsion.
Once the document is finalized, Pobst said every student will sign a copy of it at the beginning of the school year and its meaning will be discussed in every class.
School board members were thankful for the task force's work.
"Students don't realize that any career you go into is a very small niche and once people figure out that you're a cheater in your career it gets around to your peers very quickly and stagnates your growth," Terry Fielden said. "This gives us some good basic guidelines to negotiate that path."
Jackie Romberg agreed the policy will help students now and in the future.
"I just think it's a great project," she said. "This is just one more way that District 203 is trying to help our students with that gap between high school and postsecondary school."
Integrity: 54 percent of Central, North students said they've cheated