The year Leaving Certificate cheating stopped being a secret

 

A whistleblowing student has accused Leaving Cert students of cheating, and subsequent online discussions suggest the practice is widespread. And even if cheaters get caught, the penalties are usually mild, writes LOUISE HOLDEN

A CARLOW student who blew the whistle on Leaving Cert cheats at her school this week showed how an age-old practice has found new expression in technology. Like bullying and pornography, cheating is one of those vices that has been enhanced and remodelled by social-networking websites and mobile phones. The ensuing discussion has brought some facts about cheating, and the official reponse to it, to light.

The student vented her frustration online after she saw cheats from her school boasting about their exploits on Facebook. “There’s cheating happening in my school,” she wrote on the online forum boards.ie last Saturday. “The students hide notes written from before the exam in their socks and pants and some even got away with having a phone on their lap for an entire paper and reading saved messages from it.”

There followed 77 pages of responses from students around the country, many supporting her plan to take the matter to the State Examinations Commission. In the meantime, however, the media got hold of the thread and the story went public. By Friday, the student was telling her story to The Irish Times, and the State Examinations Commission had launched an investigation.

Everyone’s talking cheating now, and it’s becoming clear that there is confusion about the potential punishments. Myths have grown up around the issue. Students who responded on boards.ie and teachers interviewed by The Irish Timesbelieve that all cheats caught in the act are banned from taking exams for a fixed time. Periods of four and five years are regularly quoted. Some commentators said Leaving Cert cheats could be banned from a range of official tests – from civil service exams to driving tests.

In reality, no one has been banned from taking a State exam since the State Examinations Commission (SEC) was established in 2003, despite the fact that an average of 100 reports of cheating are made each year.

LAST YEAR, 83 reports of cheating in the Leaving Cert were upheld, but not a single candidate was given the ultimate sanction. “More than 100 exams were queried last year, and we investigated them all,” says Martina Mannion of the commission. “In the end, results were withheld in 83 cases at Leaving Cert level and six cases at Junior Cert.”

Here’s where another myth crops up. There is a belief abroad that the Leaving Cert document presented to the cheater features the ominous statement “Results Withheld” after the contested subject, instead of a result. Not so. According to Martina Mannion, the subject is simply left off the certificate. “This leaves students in the position of having to explain to future educators or employers why they are missing a result,” says Mannion.

The missing marks, however, should only pose a problem for students who cheat in core subjects such as maths or Irish. Surely the gap is easy to hide in the case of electives such as biology? While Mannion admits that a missing result on an elective subject would not be noticed by an employer, she says the SEC will not impose more extreme sanctions unless there is a “very serious” infringement.

“We do have the option to withhold the entire [Leaving] certificate, or to debar a student from taking State examinations again,” she says.

If an infringement is extreme enough to warrant a total ban, the decision falls to the Minister for Education, rather than the otherwise independent commission. However, the threat of the total exam ban is frequently wielded in schools around the country.

John O’Halloran of Limerick Tutorial Centre says his staff talk to students before exams and warn them that if they are caught cheating they could face a four- or five-year ban from sitting State exams. Mannion says the commission specifies no such period.

However, O’Halloran is not alone in his understanding. Over the course of the 75-page discussion of Leaving Cert cheats on boards.ie, several students make reference to a four-year ban for all students caught cheating.

Mobile phones, the internet and Twitter are recent additions to the cheater’s repertoire, and, says Mannion, there’s not a great deal more that can be done to address that apart from instructing students to leave devices outside.

“Even the prison service has not been able to root out all mobile phones,” she points out.

However, Mannion insists that broader access to technology has not had a huge impact on the number of cheating reports that cross her desk.

“The number of queried papers we receive has remained pretty steady over the last seven years,” she says. “The difference is that technology is bringing the issue to a wider audience. This is the first time that newspapers, and subsequently the wider public, have been party to an unfortunate feature of our job: investigating cheating.”

Not every response to the Carlow student’s post on cheating was supportive. Not alone did students accuse of her being a “snitch”, but some upheld the right of enterprising students to find ways around a system that many regard as fundamentally unfair.

“If you think ‘cheating’ is wrong you should wake up,” wrote a poster calling himself Deltoro. “The system cheats us every year . . . It is widely agreed it is not a test of intelligence or aptitude.

“There are many people who just don’t have the ability to learn off countless notes and essays and reproduce them in the relatively short time period. There are some people who might know all the answers but can’t write them in the allotted period. These people are just as eager and deserving to go on to third-level education as anyone else.

“Just think about that before doing something anyone with any sense of morality will regret.”

After all, Senator Ted Kennedy was expelled from Harvard for cheating in an exam. Could students who use up-to-the minute technology to access key information and use it intelligently be exactly what this country needs? Discuss.