Up to 30 Chemistry Honors students were penalized for cheating when members of the class leaked photos of the free-response section of an upcoming unit test through a group text message.
The sophomore who reported the incident, and who agreed to be interviewed only if their name wasn’t used, said a group of students were taking a test before the rest of the class in an adjoining room due to a field trip that conflicted with the test date.
While the teacher was proctoring this early test, a student from the other room took a picture of a completed test sitting on the teacher’s desk.
This sophomore said they notified the teacher about the incident because it felt like the right thing to do.
“It should be an equal playing (field) for all students,” the sophomore who reported the incident said. “No one should have an advantage over others when taking a test.”
Another sophomore in the class, who also agreed to be interviewed only if their name wasn’t used, said students also cheated during the test by texting pictures of the test to their friends.
This sophomore said systematic cheating existed long before the most recent test.
“Cheating has been going on for at least this semester, if not last semester too,” the sophomore said. “This was a repeat occurrence where people would take pictures of the tests, and they never got punished for it.”
This sophomore also said pictures of tests usually ended up being shared in multiple, big group chats, which included students from nearly every Chemistry Honors class.
Another sophomore in the class who also agreed to an interview only if their name wasn’t used said photos of Chemistry Honors tests were occasionally sold too.
“A kid who took a picture of his test started using it as a business to sell (the tests) to other students for $5,” this sophomore said. “I personally know of someone who bought the tests. They got it for free through the group chats sometimes and had to buy (a test) other times depending on who took the picture of the test.”
Both Chemistry Honors teachers and Assistant Principal Michelle Steingart, who oversees the sophomore class and the science department, said they did not want to be interviewed for this story.
According to the Paly Student Handbook, academic dishonesty infractions are categorized into three tiers of offenses: Categories A, B and C. Category A violations include copying minor assignments, Category B violations include plagiarism or violations on major assignments and Category C violations include altering returned tests or stealing exams.
“Category C includes taking pictures of a test, which is something that has happened more often now,” Assistant Principal Erik Olah said. “Taking a photo, in my book, would be a third offense every time.”
The traditional disciplinary consequences for Category C violations include suspension and possible expulsion. Colleges must also be notified about the student’s academic dishonesty in their letters of recommendation according to the Student Handbook.
Olah said the overall nature of Paly academics likely play a role in student academic dishonesty.
“There’s a lot of pressure to succeed, and students may feel like they’re falling behind and need to take a shortcut,” Olah said.
Sophomore Siena Dunn, a Chemistry Honors student in the class period where the cheating incident happened, said poor performances in the class may have prompted students to take extreme measures too.
“A lot of people were especially disappointed by the last test,” Dunn said. “The grades weren’t as great as most people hoped.”
Another sophomore from the class who also agreed to be interviewed only if their name wasn’t used said legitimately achieving the grades she wanted in Chemistry Honors took a physical and mental toll on her, which she said may be why some of her peers chose to cheat.
“I’ve pulled multiple late nights before chem tests. It’s a habit by now because they’re so difficult,” this sophomore said. “I think PAUSD students can all agree that the environment Paly creates is a rat race. The fact that they’re compromising their integrity to get good grades makes the rat race impossible for a genuine and honest student to win.”
Paly Wellness Outreach Worker Shely Benitah said the social and academic pressures to achieve certain grades may make students feel afraid of failure, but that doesn’t mean they should cheat.
“Fear is a powerful motivator,” Benitah said. “Some students may use academic dishonesty as a coping mechanism to avoid what they may perceive as failure.”
However, Benitah said students should not let the stress of aiming high overwhelm them.
“No grade will ever reflect your inherent value and worth as a person,” Benitah said. “You are so much more than your grades.”