Watchung High School cheating ring may have been profitable–but it hurt innocent students

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A bright, popular high school senior–headed for an Ivy League university–ran a profitable cheating ring at the prestigious Watchung Hills Regional High School for at least two years before the scam was uncovered by a suspicious teacher a few months ago.

The student, who sold tests and other materials to schoolmates, often via a password-protected website, was suspended for 10 days but apparently faced no other penalties. She was permitted to make up lost work provided by her teachers, including some who were infuriated with the student’s actions. And she was listed as an “excused absence” in the school’s attendance records.

The Ivy League school to which she was admitted was not informed of her activities, sources say.

Teachers confronted some of the students involved, asking them why they cheated. A district document describing reactions by teachers explained: “The students are conflicted and they are friends with the student, although they don’t support what she did.”

Other teachers were less forgiving of students who bought the tests and those who remained silent knowing cheating was going on, with one saying, “They are all complicit in this.”

One teacher apparently was troubled by how closely the answers on essay tests resembled those of other students and began to raise questions. It appeared questions and answers of previously administered tests were circulating among students. The teacher’s questioning led to revelations about the cheating ring.

While the student who actually did the copying and sold the tests was suspended, students who bought–and, presumably, used–the contraband materials received no punishment at all. Teachers say their parents were not even informed.

Elizabeth Jewett

“A lot of the students are mad because they don’t cheat,” one teacher reported. School employees also expressed concern about the impact on students whether or not they cheated.

“This can be damaging to other students from Watchung Hills,” another teacher said.

Top administrators of the affluent high school district in New Jersey’s Somerset County sought to keep news of the cheating scandal from spreading through the small suburban towns served by the regional district–Warren, Watchung, Long Hill, and Green Brook.

However, Bob Braun’s Ledger, drawing from sources among students, teachers, and parents, as well as documents obtained through the Open Public Records Act (OPRA), has uncovered the existence of the cheating ring and the failure of the district to acknowledge its existence.

The superintendent, Elizabeth Jewett, waited nearly a month after the cheating was uncovered before informing board members.  She called the issue “sensitive” and subsequently cited “confidentiality” policies to justify her refusal to inform the district’s residents–although the existence of the cheating ring was not a confidential matter.

Among students and others, the widespread cheating was hardly a secret. More than a month ago, someone attached a comment to a review of the school district on the website Niche that warned:

“The administration is too concerned with some things such as the PARCC and the school’s academic standings and is too light on punishments. For example, a huge cheating scandal spanning over several years had recently come to light and only one individual was punished and her punishment was a 10 day suspension and the colleges she applied to were not notified. Cheating is not taken seriously at all and should be more enforced. The administration does not listen to the concerns of the teachers or student body, it’s pathetic.”

Reviews on such websites often contain criticism, but this one referred to “a huge cheating scandal”–a serious red flag that apparently went ignored.

Other sources among students, teachers, and parents also complained that the district attempted to cover up a major cheating problem.

Jewett responded to inquiries by refusing to provide details and diverting attention to what she promised would be “an ongoing conversation around academic integrity.” She also qualified references to the cheating scandal with the word “alleged” suggesting it might not have happened.

The state’s Roger Jinks. Is the state interested in the truth? Or is it just a tool to spread rumors without regard for accuracy?

Ironically, the efforts of Bob Braun’s Ledger to uncover what happened provided Jewett with a way of denying the existence of the scandal–even denying it to the state Department of Education which supervises the district.

Three years ago, the Watchung Hills district was at the epicenter of an international flap involving Pearson, a global test publisher that provides the statewide PARCC tests used in New Jersey. Pearson, Bob Braun’s Ledger revealed, was spying on the emails of students who took the PARCC test throughout the state.

Jewett was notified that Pearson had uncovered email discussions by students of the test and state education department officials suggested she should discipline the students. The flap quickly died down when the pro-PARCC administration of then Gov.  Chris Christie promised –but never delivered–an investigation.

An initial source for the later story mentioned the earlier PARCC controversy and that led Bob Braun’s Ledger to ask Jewett whether the cheating scandal involved the standardized test. She denied it and said any allegation that there was a cheating scandal involving PARCC  was “highly inaccurate.”

Bob Braun’s Ledger accepted her denial and never published an article about PARCC cheating. But it also asked about any cheating or, as Jewett preferred, acts of “academic dishonesty.” Jewett, however, kept returning to the PARCC issue in emails to board members and one state official–even after the topic of discussion moved on to other kinds of cheating. She got deniability but not truth.

Jewett exchanged emails with Roger Jinks, the Somerset County superintendent and a state department of education official responsible for the area in which the Watchung Hills district is located. She tells Jinks she has answered all questions posed to her and notes that Bob Braun’s Ledger asked additional questions.

Jewett writes to Jinks: “It is highly unfortunate that he”–Bob Braun, the publisher of Bob Braun’s Ledger–“is not interested in the truth.”

Jinks, without speaking to Braun or attempting to determine whether there was any truth behind the questions about a massive cheating scandal in a district under his direct supervision, buys into Jewett’s characterization of Bob Braun’s Ledger, calling the blog “nothing more than a tool to spread rumors without regard for accuracy.”

Jewett was asked by Bob Braun’s Ledger whether she was aware of any efforts by students “to engage in efforts that would meet any reasonable definition of academic dishonesty.” Her answer–which also was sent on to Jinks–was “No.”

That clearly wasn’t true, proven by a trail of email exchanges between her and school board members and George Alexis, the principal of the school.

Jinks and Jewett, apparently, were “not interested in the truth.”

 

 

 

 

10 comments

  1. Abigail Shure

    The discrepancies between the attitudes toward alleged cheated scandals in poor urban districts and affluent suburbs are remarkable. In Newark, for instance, many investigations were conducted by state officials. In contrast, the current iteration is denied, minimized and treated to a wink and a nod. Could this conundrum possibly serve as an example of institutionalized racism?

  2. Loren Kohlmann

    I think most students and parents will take it upon themselves- rightly so- to inform the college of choice about their potential student’s little cheating “hijinks”, but if enough $$$$ is changing hands why would they care when a public school doesn’t ? There is a quiet way for this to be done successfully, and to leave the place open to an honest and deserving student. Evidently, the cheating is inconsequential as most white collar crime is- does someone think that schools can even try to explain “plagiarism” as a negative after this one ? Boy the wealthy sure get away with everything.

  3. KEVIN A MCDONALD

    I do not view that as cheating. Having the questions and answers before a test means the students still have to learn the material for the test. The goal of the test is to gauge a student’s comprehension of the material. It’s really no different from the study aids sold at most bookstores in colleges and grad schools – if you have the money to buy them, you get an advantage over other students. If anything, this is preparing all students for the real world. Furthermore, if the universe of material is such that it is not all tested, then the tests are not inclusive enough to begin with due to laziness on the part of the teachers. There is also no mention of how the student got the tests. If the tests were recycled from prior years, then they are surely fair game for reproduction and dissemination. In which case it would be the teachers’ prerogative to change the tests each year.

    • James T Clemnens

      I am a PhD physicist and I can tell you that in real life we do not have the questions and answers before any observed event. Education consists of memorization of facts, understanding the process of logical thought and the ability to assemble known knowledge with new facts and ideas in a comprehensive way.
      Memorizing questions and answers is only a very small fraction of education. Every day we are exposed to situations we have never experienced and we must be able to analyze the issue and come to a reasonable solution.
      Additionally, education includes the memorization of the rules of society and among one of them is honesty.
      Cheating violates that rule, since it represents presentatation of ideas and information that we falsely claim was created by ourselves. Here is a simple question for you to contemplate: Did Bernie Maddof cheat his clients and at what level of monetary value do you consider he violated the rule of honesty.

    • Carly Curiale

      no, it it is most certainly not the same concept as preparing with study aids, because there is not one SAT practice test book that mirrors the actual test itself in terms of the answer key/format being the same
      no teacher should be labelled as “lazy” for assuming in the academic integrity of their students.
      also how exactly does this prepare students for “the real world”, unless the lesson lies with cheating and dishonesty? because in that case, this is certainly one of the greatest preparations available to aspiring adults, is learning how to game the system and gain “success” through the most backhanded and dishonest means possible
      no teacher should be held accountable for the fact that their student lacks academic integrity. it is not their job to police and parent. simply to teach. events like this hinder that ability, and if anything, restrict the availability of knowledge/learning for real, honest students

      lastly big kudos to the teacher who saw this issue for what is was, and did all in his/her power to do the RIGHT thing

  4. David Bean

    This is not surprising to me. Watchung Hills School administration is more concerned with appearance than substance. They want to tell you they are on top of all issues and that nothing can be discussed because of confidentiality. Anyone who raises a concern is told that “it has been handled” internally and can’t be discussed. If you want a good story try digging in to Watchung athletics and coaches who are allowed to bully members of the team as they see fit all in the name of the “Warrior Way.” While the School states that they have a zero tolerance policy on drugs, alcohol, and tobacco on School grounds for the student body it is acceptable for current coaches to walk around in school and at School events spitting tobacco juice in to a Dunkin Donuts cup like the general public notices and recognizes the fact. When addressed with the principal we are told i”it has been handled internally” which basically means nothing has been done. I personally have witnessed this behavior and it doesn’t seem to change. It was the school system that brought my family to Watchung for the educational benefits. If i knew then what I know now I would have made different choices.

    • NilesP89

      Powerful, if woeful, insights. Given recent stories of explosive classroom and social outbursts by some of the school’s “star” athletes, one had already doubted that steroid use.

      On a positive note in terms of adults doing adulting, last football season the Warren Police Dept., presumably in conjunction with school admins, completely and immediately shut down underage drinking (and resulting trouble) that had become the norm at games in previous years. As with every community, when there is a will (coming from parents who dare or bother to engage), there is most definitely way.

  5. NilesP89

    Powerful, if woeful, insights. Given recent stories of explosive classroom and social outbursts by some of the school’s “star” athletes, one had already wondered about steroid use.

    On a positive note in terms of adults doing adulting, last football season the Warren Police Dept., presumably in conjunction with school admins, completely and immediately shut down underage drinking (and resulting trouble) that had become the norm at games in previous years. As with every community, when there is a will (coming from parents who dare or bother to engage), there is most definitely way.

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