The confused controversy of cell phones in schools

The State of Florida recently imposed a cell phone ban on students while taking the FCAT. All the parents of school children in the state received a letter explaining the ban. On the other hand, the Legislature in the State of Utah voted down a bill that would require school districts to establish policies governing cell phone use. The sponsoring legislator said, “[Cell phones] can be used to cheat. We’ve had inappropriate photos transmitted. The problem is pervasive.” An opposing legislator was quoted as saying that “he thinks electronic devices could be better used in education and wouldn’t necessarily like to see policies that simply prohibit them.”

cell phone on text
In another story last week reported by Wave3 of Louisville, we read: “Teachers at Oldham County High say they’ve had problems with students using their cell phones to cheat in class. ‘I saw a boy texting under his desk during a test. Then I picked it up. Clear as day it said number five –D- and I took it to the office and we were able to trace the number and it was to another student in the same class,’ said Newkirk.” Now contrast that experience with this column from the Muskegon Chronicle, where the writer claims that gadgets don’t help cheaters. The following points were made:

  1. Yet research indicates that cheating in high school and college isn’t any more common today than it was 30 years ago.
  2. “And 99 percent of cheating is still done the old-fashioned way, like copying from a neighbor,” said Scott Gomer, media relations director for ACT,
  3. But in her four years at Northview High School in Plainfield Township, Kelsey Perras has heard of someone pulling out a cell phone to take a picture of a test “only once,” she said.
  4. “High-tech cheating isn’t really something you see a whole lot of,” said Hudsonville High senior Travis Martin. “Most people won’t pull out their cell phone during a test. It’s tough to make that discreet.”
  5. Perras said cheaters at Northview are caught more often than not.

Muskegon must be a very sheltered place with extremely astute teachers. The credibility of each of the above statements is easily challenged. I see a lot of data and from what I see, I feel very confident in stating that cheaters are rarely caught. The only way that I can explain some of the cheating I see is through wireless communications. And, research from the Josephson Institute and Center for Academic Integrity convincingly shows that cheating in school is rising and has been rising for the last two decades.

Confusion concerning cell phones in schools is raging throughout the whole country. The issue is being intensely debated in New York City where it has spilled into the court system. Last spring the New York State Supreme Court upheld a ban on cell phones imposed by New York City in 2006. The Supreme Court decision is now being challenged in appellate court.

Surprisingly, security arguments are given by both sides of this debate. Proponents of cell phones argue that parents and administrators need constant contact with students, because without constant contact student security is jeopardized. Opponents of cell phones in schools cite privacy violations with videos posted on the Internet of students in restrooms and teachers disciplining students. And, of course, they do not overlook the implications of cheating. As reported by WSAZ, the solution at Marshall University has been to allow each instructor to determine in their course syllabus whether cell phones during tests are banned, but to not restrict cell phone use on campus.

Penn State has addressed the issue by creating secure testing environments, where the computers do not have Internet access and where cell phone transmissions are silenced. The technology they are using includes: secure workstations, cameras and monitors on every test taker, and metal-lined testing rooms (known as faraday cages) that passively prevent wireless communications. While this may seem extreme, contrast this with the exam breach of 2004 in South Korea where 314 test results were invalidated after police discovered answer keys being transmitted using text messaging. As another example, consider the January 2, 2008 report by the Boston Globe where firefighters in Boston sent text messages from the restroom to cheat on their exams.

It is clear that cell phones are used to surreptitiously cheat on tests. People, in general, feel strongly that cheating shouldn’t be tolerated on tests. We don’t want doctors, lawyers, nurses, accountants, firefighters, police or any other person who provides a service to us to be an incompetent, bumbling cheater. On the other hand, the public sentiment appears to be confused when it comes to setting aside the cell phone while an exam is being given. The public seems unwilling to restrict the individual privilege of being able to communicate with a child in school while taking a test in order to prevent cheating.

The principle of fairness and integrity dictates that students should have a level playing field. It is very difficult to convince me that the playing field was level when cheaters in China were caught with radio receivers in their shoes:

Police in Jiutai, in the northeastern province of Jilin, became suspicious when a mini-bus remained parked outside a school hosting the exam on Thursday, Xinhua said.

Inside, they found three people, “two of them staring at a computer screen and talking into a walkie-talkie,” Xinhua said.

A student in the examination hall used a wireless microphone to read out the questions and received the answers from the van; Xinhua quoted their confessions as saying.

Police had found some 42 pairs of so-called “cheating shoes” with transmitting and reception ability, selling for about 2,000 Yuan each, in a flat in Shenyang, the provincial capital, state media said on Thursday, adding that they — along with “cheating wallets” and hats — had proved popular this year.

There is no confusion in my mind on this issue. But, I’m just a statistician and who am I to know differently?

Dennis Maynes

Chief Scientist, Caveon Test Security


  • A thoughtful analysis. My sense is that attempts to take cell phones away from students are facing a very tough battle. For many parents, the ability for a child to communicate with them and vice versa is extremely important. It is always easy to go to extreme cases, but the school and college shootings argue so strongly for cell phone availability that I don’t think any argument will trump the depth of feeling involved.

    The solution I like best of the ones that I have heard is that the student’s cell phone is in a clear plastic bag hanging behind him or her, turned off, and not accessible to anyone else. If a student is found with a phone on their person, they fail the exam, with some discretion to the school for the befuddled student who really did forget they had it in a pocket or somewhere.

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