Students often talk and study in the halls and rooms of Aspen High School. Staff members often wonder if cheating is being discussed, and whether the students see it that way.
Students often talk and study in the halls and rooms of Aspen High School. Staff members often wonder if cheating is being discussed, and whether the students see it that way. Credit: Christina Capasso / Aspen Journalism

ASPEN — OK, it’s pop-quiz time. Which of the following behaviors meets your definition of “cheating”?

1. On test day, a student tapes the answers to the inside of a clear water bottle, facing outward, then conveniently places the bottle on his desk.

2. Working in a group science lab assignment, a student lets his two peers do all of the work but he claims an equal share of the credit.

3. While collaborating on a homework assignment, two students split the task — one solves half of the problems, another solves the other half.

4. A student doesn’t know how to do a homework problem so she calls a friend who explains it to her.

OK, what do you think? Number one is pretty straightforward, of course. Not only did the student bring the answers to the test, but somehow got the answers ahead of time. Guilty.

How about No. 2? Not quite so clear, eh? This may not be ideal behavior, but it’s not necessarily purposeful cheating, either. Number three? Again, it’s not exactly cheating, but you can bet the teacher expected each child to solve every problem. And No. 4? Well, that depends on the details of the conversation, doesn’t it?

It’s not easy to define cheating, and honest people may disagree on where to draw the line.

Nonetheless, a committee of administrators and teachers at Aspen High School are tackling these questions in an effort to define “academic integrity” and make it part of the school culture. Led by Aspen High School Principal Kim Martin, the Academic Integrity Committee is not a disciplinary or investigative panel but is meeting weekly to explore a broad range of ethical issues bubbling up at the high school.

In recent months, Martin has noticed an uptick in special requests from students and parents. For example, there’s the International Baccalaureate student who enrolled in an elective class worth 4 points (most IB classes are 5 points) and complained weeks later that the class was driving down his grade-point average. Can he take the class pass-fail instead?

Martin cited another instance: “If you’re a parent, is it an act of integrity to call a teacher and say, ‘My son didn’t do well on this test. I’d really like you to give him a retest’?”

At the root of all these requests for exemptions or favors is a desire for good grades. But the end doesn’t always justify the means.

Aspen High School Principal Kim Martin is leading a broad look into the subject of “academic integrity,” including cheating and other shortcuts students might use to improve their grades. Credit: Christina Capasso/Aspen Journalism

Changing the Culture

In every Aspen High School classroom is a poster called the “Aspen High School Honor Code.” Under the heading of “Academic Integrity,” the code reads: “I will make a personal commitment to honesty and truthfulness with regards to all academic work. I pledge that all work is my own.”

“I think it’s great,” Martin said about the code, “but I don’t think it’s embedded as part of our student culture.”

What is embedded in Aspen High School culture is the desire to go to college. Consistently, more than 90 percent of Aspen High School seniors are admitted to four-year colleges or universities. If you count two-year institutions, the percentage is higher than 90.

Martin loves to hear the ring of the bell in the cafeteria when a child gets a college acceptance letter, but believes the pressure for good grades leads some students to put performance before learning. For some students, it turns into a near-obsession.

“Some kids want to achieve by any means necessary,” Martin said. “That’s where we get to the cheating part.”

In December, teachers caught five Aspen High students who were planning to use false data on a laboratory assignment. Martin had already created the Academic Integrity Committee at the time, so the incident became something of a case study for committee members to understand why the students made the choices they did, and what, if anything, the committee could do about it.

Each of the students spoke with the committee and prepared a “reflection” about their behavior. According to Martin, all students used the word “panic” to describe their reasons for choosing the wrong route to a better grade. They also made it clear that they were not alone in their misguided behavior. To the principal, who has the authority to punish cheaters as she sees fit, this pointed to an unhealthy focus on grades.

More recently, the committee surveyed teachers and found 80 percent of Aspen High faculty members had encountered at least one instance of apparent academic dishonesty, ranging from outright cheating or plagiarism to an over-the-top request for special treatment.

Committee member Josh Berro, an Aspen High counselor, said Aspen is part of a nationwide trend in its emphasis on academic performance.

“Now more than ever, there’s a hysteria to get into the best college,” Berro said.

Students everywhere have long sought to gain undue advantages on tests, but today\ Credit: Christina Capasso / Aspen Journalism

Next Steps

So, how can the committee change the school’s culture to promote academic ethics alongside the enthusiasm for college? At a Tuesday parent breakfast meeting, Martin heard various suggestions, some “softer” ideas that involved clarifying right and wrong behaviors for students, and some “harder” moves that involved accountability and consequences for cheaters. And parents have to be on board for the message to stick, they said. Nobody suggested that Martin was wrong to pursue the issue or that the problem doesn’t exist.

Martin told the parents that college counselor Kathy Klug will attend freshman seminar classes this month to discuss academic integrity and the impact that cheating or misbehavior can have on the college-application process. Martin said all junior and senior IB students have already signed a code of conduct, and she hopes to have the entire student body do something similar at the beginning of the 2015-16 year.

Beyond those actions, it’s unclear where the academic integrity effort leads.

For Berro, it will be at least a small victory to simply get the students thinking and conversing on the subject.

“Success to me at this point would be for kids to be aware of this, to start talking about it,” he said. “It would be great if kids were discussing what is and what isn’t acceptable.”

Aspen Journalism’s education desk is collaborating with The Aspen Times on schools coverage. This story was published in the Times on April 10, 2015.