Board of Ed, admin address cheating; public, students speak out against re-testing

Darien's Board of Education building at 35 Leroy Avenue

Darien's Board of Education building at 35 Leroy Avenue

Board of Ed

It was people speaking “of integrity with integrity.”

That’s how Schools Superintendent Dr. Alan Addley described the meeting and public comments held Tuesday night by the Darien Board of Education to some 10th graders cheating on two Darien High School exams.

The meeting, attended by more than 100 and standing room only, followed an announcement last Friday from Addley to high school parents that the multiple-choice answers for World Studies and English exams were breached and “widely distributed” to the sophomore class, compromising the exams’ integrity. The tests will be re-administered next week after the school administration said today’s technology made it too difficult to determine who had taken the test honestly. The events and decision were detailed in the letter from high school principal Ellen Dunn.

Administration comments

Addley told parents and the board that a number of students entered the Language Arts and Social Studies faculty offices and copied the answers to the multiple-choice portions of those exams.

“It was determined that these answers were widely disseminated through social media,” Addley said, adding that up to 280 to 300 students could have been impacted.

“The pervasiveness and issues of fairness” of the incident led the administration to believe the “most reasonable action is to re-administer the multiple-choice parts of the exam,” he said.

Addley said this is consistent with practices of other standardized tests such as the SAT and AP exams.

Based on feedback from students, there will be no other tests for students required to retake the exams, and study guides will be provided to students who need them.

“I also want to reassure that among these deliberations, the administration has been reflective and considered the integrity, fairness, disruption, stress and reasonableness,” he said, adding that the “needs of all the students, including the students that violated the academic policy were taken into consideration.”

Addley also clarified how the punishment affects extracurricular activities, saying students’ athletic or other extracurricular activity participation is only impacted on the specific days on which they are serving a suspension. Addley also said the matter has been referred to Darien Police. However, earlier this week, the police told The Darien Times though they were aware of the incident, the investigation was being handled by the school district.

“I respectfully request the board and the public to entrust the administration in making the best decision possible given the circumstances and the best interest of the students and Darien public school system,” Addley said.

The school held a meeting on Monday with students to address the cheating and the resolution.

Board of Education Chair Tara Ochman addressed the large crowd at the meeting on Tuesday.

“Over the weekend, board members were contacted by many in the community with concerns, complaints, and questions. To be clear, the Board of Education does not get involved in the situation and does not handle student discipline,” she said.

Though the “Board of Ed does not determine or govern the day-to-day runnings of the school,” Ochman said, “given the level of concern” the board opted to hear a report about what happened and to allow the public to speak.

“If our conversation begins to veer into anything that can personally identify a student, we will immediately call for an executive session,” she said.

Several members of the public spoke.

One parent said her 10th grade son worked hard to study for the two exams and was “more of a math and science kid.”

“These two midterms were the ones he stressed about the most, and when they were done, he felt a weight had been lifted off him,” she said.

Readministering the tests “nearly a month” after the initial tests, while also interfering with other classwork “is not an acceptable solution,” she said.

She pointed out that the high school handbook does not cite a retesting policy for students who have been accused of dishonesty, let alone a student not accused. She also said there were a lot of rumors regarding what happened and what the punishment was. “The only way to dispel those rumors is for the administration to tell us exactly what happened and what the punishment was for those students,” she said.

“This can be done without identifying them. I think you owe it to the students who were affected and the students who honestly studied for those exams,” she said.

Another parent pointed out that the event leading up to the answers being disseminated was “breaking and entering.”

“If someone punches someone in the hallway, or does something illegal, is that not grounds for expulsion? Why is this not grounds for expulsion for the students involved?” he asked.

Students speak

One student who spoke, Pace Flaherty, said he had created a petition over the weekend to “hold the Darien public school system more accountable for violations of academic integrity.” The petition received over 276 signatures in 72 hours.

“A lot of students in my grade and in the school are feeling like the students got away with these acts with a slap on the wrist. And that is very insulting to us as we have to retake our midterms, which also sounds like a consequence that has fallen onto us,” he said.

He added that after brainstorming with his peers, they had several suggestions for the school to address similar actions going forward, including having student athletes benched for a number of weeks.

Another 10th grader, Olivia Punishill, said she understands why she needs to retake the exam and appreciates that other testing during the retaking won’t happen. But she added that she has three to four tests next Thursday because it’s the week before break.

“I know other students have the same number. So because of the placement of these make-up exams, students are now either having to compromise studying for the entire semester for a test that is worth 20 percent of their grade, or compromise studying for four major tests that are the first grades of the next quarter,” she said.

Either way, Punishill said students aren’t going to be “able to perform to their full capability on any of these exams.”

Another solution

Parent Kristen Harnisch spoke at the meeting saying “the administration’s proposed solution to a situation (that we all agree was dishonest and unfair) is to treat honorable students unfairly by making them prove their innocence when they did nothing wrong.”

“This is a burden to every student who did not cheat, and this sends the wrong message,” she said.

Harnisch proposed an alternative solution to the administration —give students a choice to either eliminate the entire midterm grade from the final grade or opt to retake the multiple choice portion as proposed.

“I respectfully but strongly urge you to consider a solution that does not punish innocent students. Remember, the only way we can protect the reputation of our high school is to actually protect the honest, hardworking students who are its very foundation,” she said.