I am the PICO (Person In Charge of Olympiads) for our school’s Math Olympiads for Elementary and Middle Schools. We offer the elementary one for anyone who is interested in 6th grade or below. The middle school one is required for the kids in the “middle school” math group (many of whom are still eligible for the younger one as well) and is done during a math period.
We have been doing it like this for 3 or 4 years now, with one year prior when we only had the elementary one. Our school is not a “gifted” school. Not every child is mathematically inclined. But, in our experience thus far, they all do eventually “blossom” and start “getting” how to do this kind of problem solving. One of my most gratifying experiences thus far was a student who had been struggling and thinking she wasn’t good at math finally getting her first olympiad problem and mouthing to me during the contest “I got one!”. She went on to be in the top 50% in the nation the next year. She was clearly very proud of the olympiad patch she earned for this accomplishment.
Well, last month during the February Olympiads, I had two (first year of middle school) students cheat on the middle school olympiad. Both handed in papers with an identical pattern of both correct and incorrect answers copied from a stronger student. (It was obvious from both the seating pattern and knowledge of what each student is capable of, who copied from whom.) One maintains innocence, claiming that he or she guessed on every problem, and it was all just a remarkable coincidence. (These are not multiple choice questions but open answer, so this is just not possible.) The other has admitted to copying.
So, I’m really saddened by this. These kids are required to participate in the olympiad, but they are not graded on it (directly, though their head teacher does use their performance as one of many observations she makes in determining how they may be doing with various things). We ask only that they give us an honest effort (and not just fill in 5 random guesses). For some of the kids, some of the problems will be over their heads at this point, but they should be able to find at least some that they can make progress on, or make an educated guess on, even if they can’t solve the whole thing. We have tried to point out that these problems are meant to be hard; that they are not expected to be able to do them all, especially in their first year or two of middle school.
I have spoken to their main teacher. She does not want to exempt or exclude students from the contests, feeling that if they “give up” now while the going is tough, they won’t get the satisfaction of seeing how much they improve over the years. I have had several parents of graduates tell me that their children (daughters, mostly) didn’t think they were good at math and wouldn’t have done those competitions voluntarily, but that these same students all finally did get better at these problems, and that experience had given them confidence in their abilities as math students and problem solvers. So, we’re pretty confident of the benefits of the program. But… I hate to see students feeling so pressured and/or frustrated that they choose to cheat.
So, aside from seating people far enough apart that there can be no question of cheating, any other suggestions?