TAs abuse power

Student TAs use access to gradebooks to help friends cheat

Steffi Lau, editor in chief
El Estoque, Monta Vista High School Newspaper
November 27, 2006

It’s the common solution for an empty period—sign up to be a Teacher Aide for a well-liked teacher and receive course credit for grading homework occasionally. But it seems that TAs may receive more of an edge than the easy credit—with access to gradebooks and peers’ homework, they often have the power to manipulate the system and give their friends an advantage.

“Basically the teacher put the system into place and I exploited it,” Victor Lam* said. “I found a loophole.”

Last year, Lam TA-ed for a history class. Given the password to the electronic gradebook, Lam had access to all the teacher’s grades. He was given as much responsibility from grading tests to sending progress reports to the office. Towards the end of each semester, his friends began to approach him asking him to change their grades.

“They had borderline grades and wanted a cushion going into the finals,” Lam explained. “So if they said they needed a certain percentage, like they had an 88 percent and wanted a 90, I’d add a point to every test or assignment or give them credit for things they forgot to turn in and that would add up. You can barely notice it.”

Though Lam first changed his friends’ grades as a favor to them, soon other people began to ask him and offered to pay him money as word got around. He estimates that he earned 60 dollars in total from his favors, changing ten people’s grades.

While such control of the gradebook is unusual, other TAs find ways to help their friends by grading easier or passing inside information on quizzes. “It’s so widespread, that I wouldn’t consider it cheating,” Lam shrugged. “Basically half of my friends who are TAs do this. It’s a bartering system. If there’s a math TA, he’ll say to a chemistry TA, ‘I’ll trade you math stuff for chemistry stuff.’”

Last year, Rahul Singh* received copies of Spanish tests beforehand from his friend who TA-ed for a Spanish teacher. Singh’s friend sold tests which he found by rummaging through packets and trash the teacher gave him to recycle. Eventually, he accumulated half of the second semester tests and sold them to his friends.

“He gave me a pretty good discount,” Singh remembered. “I got the final for just three dollars. I think he’s still selling the tests this year.”

Singh received five tests and the final last year. He estimates that the dishonestly obtained tests boosted his grade five to eight percent.

With such unethical behavior, it’s a surprise that the cheating is not caught by teachers. While Assistant Principal Brad Metheany said that students have been caught in the past and punished accordingly, for the most part, he said, “Teachers are very conscious of protecting grades.”

However, Lam said that his chances of getting caught were “next to none.”

Similarly, Veronica Tranh*, a math TA who gives points to her friends when they don’t turn in homework, said her risk of getting caught is “ zero.”

While much of the blame for the cheating can be laid on students, it seems that teachers must accept responsibility as well. “According to the California Education Code, teachers are not allowed to have students grade homework or access the gradebook,” Metheany said. “It’s against the law. If I see teachers doing that, I remind them of their professional responsibilities.”

If a TA is discovered to be cheating, they are dropped from the class and given a F. In addition, when Administration writes college recommendations for the student, they must comment on the incident. Yet, these penalties don’t seem to resound with the TAs who are confident of not getting caught.

Although the only school rules for accepting TAs are that the student must be approved by the department chair and the teacher, some teachers have their own guidelines.

Social studies teacher Ben Recktenwald does not allow students enrolled in his classes to TA for him. “It just seems that if they TA for me second period and have me fourth period, they could see the tests and use that to their advantage,” he said.

Unfortunately, this speculation of cheating methods is one of the shocking realities. Lauren Ju*, witnessed one such incident in her social studies class. “It was Free Response Question day,” Ju remembered. “And the period before had just finished taking it. One of the FRQs had fallen on the floor and the TA, who has the same class later, picked it up and walked out. Then a minute later, he walked back in. The teacher wasn’t looking. ”

While it would seem that the line between right and wrong would be clear, even the definition of “cheating” is murky. When asked if he has ever cheated academically, Lam confidently answers “no,” not considering helping people cheat as actual cheating.

“Sure, it’s unfair, but isn’t life unfair?” Lam said. “In life, if you know people who can hook you up with a job, you would take advantage of that. It’s the same thing. It’s just fair game, you know?”

However, Lam is not without his own reservations about helping people. “This guy who ditched class three to four days a week asked me to change their grade and I flat out said no,” Lam said. “It was more possible for me to get caught and not only that, I personally don’t like people who don’t try.”

Lam said that the most he is willing to change a grade is two percent, saying that “one to two percent means they are at least working hard to try to get the grade. But if they need 10 percent, then they’re not putting in an effort.”

Tranh approaches her cheating similarly. “The teacher gives everyone two points on the math homework, so it’s not a big deal if I give them the points. If it was more, I’d feel bad and then the people would say, ‘I don’t want to study.’”

Though Tranh has no qualms about giving unmerited points, she says she would not ask the same of her friends. “I just study hard,” she said. “I wouldn’t get help like that because it’s wrong.” After a pause she said, “Well, I guess giving my friends the points is wrong too.”

Amongst the widespread cheating that occurs, there are some who view it as immoral. Upon asking senior David Guan, a TA for science teacher Travis Hambleton, if he has ever been asked to help people cheat, he replied, “Of course” as if it were only a fact of the job.

“They come up to me and say ‘Give me extra points!’” Guan said. “They do it jokingly, but you can tell they want it. I think lower of them after that.”

Though Guan said that if he were to attempt to cheat, his chances of getting caught would not be very high, he said, “I’m not going to cheat. Hambleton’s a nice guy. I’d feel like I was breaking his trust.”

Similarly, senior Dheeraj Srinivasan who TAs for a math class is often approached by students with the same motives. He said, “I tell them, ‘No, you earn your grade. It’s not my fault you don’t have a good grade.’”

Not only does Srinivasan deem cheating wrong from the TA viewpoint, he said, “It might help you in high school, but you can’t cheat your way through life. In jobs and work, you’ll be asked to solve problems yourself and what are you going to do if you don’t know? Ask a TA for help?”

Last year, Jocelyn Lo* had a C in math and found herself faced with an intimidating moral decision when finals came around. “I was complaining that I had a C and this girl said to me, ‘Oh don’t worry about it! My best friend TAs for that teacher. She can change your grade.’ And I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is really tempting, but it’s so immoral.’”

Despite the enticing idea, Lo did not take up the offer. Instead, she worked to raise her grade. However, she said, I was motivated to study hard so I wouldn’t have to be tempted. I’m afraid of what I would have done if I hadn’t gotten that B.”

Lo said, “It’s taken for granted now that someone will cheat. It’s so prevalent that not cheating has become a disadvantage. It’s more about college than the means of getting there. If you don’t cheat, you don’t end up at the top.”

Meanwhile, on the teacher side, cheating is taken far more seriously, even beyond thoughts of consequences and morals. It is taken personally. “It would definitely hurt me if one of my TAs were to cheat,” math teacher Martin Jennings said. “It’s a violation of trust."

However, it seems that thoughts like these are only to be brushed aside by TAs. “I went to go visit [the teacher] this year and he was really happy to see me,” Lam said. “I like him. But when the teacher sets it up for you like that, he’s basically asking you to beat the system.”

*the identities of these sources have been changed

©2014-2015 Steffi Lau. All rights reserved.