Peter Thompson calls it his "baptism by fire" at Severna Park High School: In ninth grade, a classmate snatched a test paper from his desk and passed it around the classroom. Teachers and administrators didn't punish anyone after he and his family complained, Thompson said.
The junior, ranked first in the school of 1,700 students, said he has seen plenty of other incidents of cheating since then, but nothing like one earlier this month: At least one student allegedly stole away to a bathroom with a sealed booklet of essay questions for the Advanced Placement American history exam and, with two friends, scoured a review manual for answers.
Now, the College Board, which developed the test, is investigating, and all 45 students in that testing group have to retake the exam Thursday.
But that wasn't enough for Thompson and a group of other top-ranked students. They're so outraged at what they view as rampant cheating at the school that they surveyed their peers last week and plan to press the principal today to discipline the cheaters and adopt stricter test proctoring rules.
"Anyone who doesn't think there's a culture of cheating here is either oblivious or blind," said Thompson. "Ranks and GPAs here are meaningless."
Reports of this single incident - and students' outcry that it is part of a widespread problem - have rocked this exclusive community just north of Annapolis, where homes command higher prices because of the lauded high school, which consistently leads the county in state test scores.
Severna Park High is the "Lake Wobegon" in Anne Arundel County, as school board Vice President Eugene Peterson puts it, where "all the children excel and go on to Harvard."
The College Board, which develops the tests, is looking into whether "there was anything wrong with the test administration," said schools spokesman Bob Mosier.
He and other district officials would not acknowledge that there was cheating, even though Severna Park High administrators received firsthand accounts from at least two students. Mosier said the district is waiting to act until the College Board releases its findings, which are expected today.
Lax oversight during tests and classwork, students say, has fueled cheating in a school that vows with banners over the front door and over public address announcements to become "the No. 1 School in Maryland."
In results to be shared with Principal James Hamilton today, 69 percent of the students who responded to the survey Friday said they felt that a culture of cheating exists at the school. About 50 percent of the roughly 300 who responded estimated that up to half the student body cheats and felt that teachers didn't hold enough power to stop cheaters.
"Some teachers do not allow any form of cheating and offer extreme punishments for anyone caught cheating, but on the other hand, some teachers do not say ANYTHING or pay attention at all to students when they are taking tests or to monitor students during tests to prohibit cheating," wrote Kathryn Muha, a junior at the school who said she saw the May 11 cheating. "Students are rarely punished and if anything happens to them, they are simply warned not to cheat again, or else."
For the past five years, Anne Arundel County schools have fervently recruited more students to take advanced placement math and science courses, hoping to challenge students to push themselves academically.
The county school board recently set a goal that by 2011, 80 percent of all high school seniors would take at least one AP or honors course; all high school seniors enrolled in college preparatory courses would take an advanced placement exam and 75 percent of the seniors who take the exams would score a 3 or better, enough to earn college credit.
Parents and students say Severna Park High has taken the district's push to an extreme. In the beginning of the year, AP students were asked to sign a contract of sorts that they intend to take exams at the end of the course that could yield college credit.
While greater enrollment in rigorous courses helps school districts place higher in national rankings, this quest has harmed academic integrity at many colleges and high schools nationwide, said Timothy Dodd, director of the Center for Academic Integrity at Duke University, which oversees academic practices at a consortium of colleges and high schools.
"The pressure to cheat is derivative from a pressure to achieve," Dodd said. "In prestigious schools, the challenge to out-achieve can be really extraordinary, and you can continue to see the cheating occur until there is a clear commandment issued for honesty, trustworthiness and respect."
The school has begun "shoving those tests down our throat. The principal wants us to be the best, no matter the cost," said a 16-year-old junior who said she witnessed the May 11 cheating and asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal. The girl plans to print more than a dozen "I hate cheating" T-shirts for some exam-takers to wear Thursday.
She said that throughout the first half of the U.S. history exam that Friday morning, the girls had been whispering and text-messaging, but the proctor had done nothing. A relatively new member of the school's staff, the proctor simply read test instructions but worked on a computer while students took the exam, the witness and other students in the room said in interviews.
According to several accounts, one girl left with a bag that the witness said contained the test booklet, then another joined her in the bathroom. When the proctor tried to stop the first girl from taking the bag, she told him she needed it for personal reasons, and he relented. The second girl later exchanged the bag with a third student, who also headed to the ladies' room.
After the witness saw two of the girls in the bathroom, hurriedly flipping through a review manual, she said she told the proctor but he did nothing. She said an interpreter for a hearing-impaired student in the room finally took the complaint to administrators.
The fact that the three girls have not been held accountable, but that there's enough of a concern to force all 45 students in the classroom to retake the test has outraged students throughout the school.
"The students who cheat, who behave like they're somehow entitled to pass these tests or these classes, make it hard for the rest of us who work hard, who pull all-nighters, who devote countless hours of work to get the grades we do," Thompson said. "It hasn't been easy."
The scandal should force school officials, parents and students to reassess the value they're all placing on taking as many AP courses as possible and scoring high, said Terra Ziporyn Snider, an active parent at Severna Park High.
"It's creating a very unhealthy environment where the courses are geared not toward maximizing learning but how to maximize test scores," she said. "The cheating on the AP history test was the apex, the breaking point of this building pressure. But it's pervasive. All the kids feel this pressure."