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.
“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.
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.”