WESTON, CONN. — Is the answer true or false? Respond to that via cellphone during class, and you could wind up in the principal's office.
Cellphones may rank as important status symbols among teens, but they're also being used to cheat.
Students need only turn off the phone's sound, type the answer, and hit send. Instantly the student across the room receives the correct answer. These young cellphone users can even transmit messages to someone in another classroom and also record, store, and retrieve test answers.
"Text messaging isn't necessarily creating new cheaters, but it makes it easier for those who cheat to do so," says Donald McCabe, founder of the Center for Academic Integrity (CAI) at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.
Marketers work hard at enticing the under-18 set with brightly colored cellphones. And many parents love the enhanced sense of security and connection they feel when their children carry cellphones. But for teachers and school administrators, the presence of cellphones anywhere in the school building can cause problems that go above and beyond the cheating threat.
At Pleasantville High School in New York, cellphones aren't allowed in classrooms during the day, says Leah MacDonald, regional director at the New York State Middle School Association, but students can keep them in their lockers.
While the phones have yet to be cited in any cheating cases in this particular Westchester County school, Ms. MacDonald believes they have a divisive effect.
"There are the kids with the nice clothes and the phones and then there are the kids who wear the same old small backpack. And kids can use cellphones to talk about other kids, a form of bullying," says MacDonald.
But shaping school policy about cellphones often requires negotiation with parents, many of whom hand them to children as young as 10 in an effort to stay in close touch.
"In speaking with parents, we found that many want their [children] to have them for after-school use, so they can find their son or daughter," says Jeannette Stern, principal of Wantagh Middle School on Long Island.
Dr. Stern says that the school worked with parents to create a compromise. No cellphones can be used in school during the day. If students bring phones to school, they are required to keep them out of sight.
"If an adult sees a cellphone during the school day, it is brought to the main office, where the student calls home and explains that a parent must come and pick up the cellphone," says Stern.
In some families, cellphones have become a difficult lesson in teaching children a better sense of responsibility.
"My grandma was getting a new cellphone, so she gave me hers," says Sherri Carey, a ninth- grade student at Pleasantville High School. "I was only supposed to have it for a week, but I kept it for two months." Sherri ran up a $1,600 bill.
Experts advise parents to follow two simple rules: Analyze the phone bill together every month, and tell the teen that he or she will be responsible for the bill if it exceeds the agreed-upon amount. Parents can also help safeguard against cheating by clicking into the phone's text messaging history.
But ultimately it will fall to the schools themselves to reduce cheating. McCabe says the best way to battle the threat of cellphone cheating is for a school to adopt an honor code.
Academic honor codes are the ideal way to deal with the problem, says McCabe, because "they place the responsibility squarely on the students' shoulders."