When Alexander Levitt moved from New Jersey to Northborough, Massachusetts, and started attending Algonquin Regional High School in 2005, the 17-year-old senior was shocked to find it was a hotbed of cheating. "Kids had programmed answer sheets into their iPods or recorded course materials into their MP3s and played them back during exams, while others had text-messaged test questions to friends," he says. When essays were assigned, some classmates simply cut and pasted text from Web sites directly into their papers. Levitt, who estimates that as many as 80% of Algonquin's 1,350 students cheat, said that the resulting grade inflation bloated the honor roll to include 60% of the student body. "People spent more time trying to cheat than studying," he says. "When I saw them getting the same grades I was, I got really angry. It's just wrong."
Kids have always cheated in school, but today's tech gadgets have made it easier than before. With nearly half of teens and tweens carrying cell phones, answers to test questions can zing around a classroom in minutes. Some students prep for pop quizzes by inputting math formulas or history dates into their programmable calculators. Others use camera phones to picture-message tests to friends outside the classroom. And it takes only a few keystrokes to buy term papers from a growing number of online "paper mills," such as schoolsucks.com, for up to $10 a page. "There's more high-tech cheating than ever," says Donald McCabe, Ph.D., a business professor at Rutgers University and founding president of the Center for Academic Integrity at Duke University.
In a recent survey of 18,000 students at 61 high schools, he found that 66% admitted to cheating on exams and 58% said they had committed plagiarism. "Kids just think, What's the big deal? Everyone does it," says McCabe. Even worse, sophisticated scammers aren't looked down on, but are admired by their peers. In November 2005 a high school junior at the prestigious Boston Latin School reportedly hacked into a teacher's computer using keystroke-recording software and shared questions with other classmates for an upcoming exam. Boston police and U.S. Secret Service agents were called in to investigate. The student still faces criminal prosecution for trespassing and other charges. Still, some kids praised his exploits. "He was smart enough that he didn't need to cheat," says Norris Duncan, 17. "So from a technical standpoint, it's kind of cool what he did."
Technology Isn't Only to Blame
But technology isn't solely to blame for the epidemic. David Callahan, author of The Cheating Culture (Harcourt), believes it's also the result of a winner-take-all society where you're supposed to do whatever it takes to succeed. "Society seems to say that it's okay to step on others, and parents haven't done a very good job when it comes to teaching values like honesty and integrity," he says.
Experts also agree that parents have contributed to the problem by constantly pressuring their children to excel. Nearly one-third of teens and 25% of tweens say that their parents push them too hard academically, according to a recent national survey commissioned by Family Circle. Liz Weber, an attorney whose daughter attended the prestigious Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland, knows many parents who are satisfied only when their kids get straight A's. "I overheard a voice mail message from one mom who was merciless when her kid got B's in his advanced placement classes," she recalls. "She told him he was lazy, that his grades were unacceptable and that he would be grounded for the summer. Parents have practically forced their kids to cheat by making their world so competitive. Is it wrong? Absolutely. Can you blame the kids? No way." Even worse, that pressure is often compounded by fear. "The message from parents is that good grades matter more than ever if you want a good job and a good life," says Callahan. "At the same time, many parents worry about getting downsized or outsourced, and they're transferring that anxiety to their kids."
Teens are showing the strain. "When you have five honors classes, you don't want to get behind," says Deborah Plotsky, 16, of Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville, Maryland. "Your parents are always reminding you about getting into a good college. Your classmates are always asking you about your grades. No one wants a C because it's embarrassing. So people cheat. But it's aggravating to people like me who work hard." Still, honest students are reluctant to speak up. "No one wants to be known as a tattletale," says Ian Krussman, 14, of Springbrook High School in Silver Spring, Maryland. "Anyone who turns in another kid will become an outcast."
The Cheating Cycle
Cheating typically starts in middle school as a way to rebel against authority. "It's a time when kids are starting to flex their muscles and friends are challenging them to be less deferential," says McCabe. He found that 66% of tweens admitted to cheating on exams, and 80% said they've let someone copy their homework. Because middle school students no longer have one teacher but several, they think they're less likely to get caught.
In high school cheating escalates as the stakes increase. Two types of dishonest students emerge: poor performers desperate to pass and high achievers driven to get a 4.0 grade average. "As often as not, the most likely cheaters are the top 20 kids in a class," says Michael Josephson, president of the Josephson Institute of Ethics. "They want to get that A instead of a B-plus, which could mean the difference between making honor roll and being class valedictorian."
But the habit is hard to break, and the consequences are long lasting. Experts agree that students who repeatedly plagiarize Internet content lose their ability to think critically and to distinguish legitimate sources from those that are hype or hyperbole. Studies over the past 40 years indicate that those who cheat in high school are more likely to do the same in college, and college cheaters, in turn, are more likely to behave dishonestly on the job. Timothy Dodd, executive director of the Center for Academic Integrity, maintains that cheating is not a victimless crime. "You don't want to look up from an operating table and know that your surgeon cheated his way through medical school," he says. "Integrity matters."
Punishment for Cheating
Still, schools are sometimes reluctant to bring cheaters to justice. One reason is the federal government's No Child Left Behind policy, which penalizes schools whose students consistently perform poorly on standardized tests by forcing them to close or replace staff. Administrators and teachers also know that accusing students will prompt meetings with angry parents and, even worse, costly lawyers. "Catching cheaters involves a lot of time and hassle," says Gregory Cizek, Ph.D., an educational measurement professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of Detecting and Preventing Classroom Cheating (Corwin Press). "And if it goes to the courts, it may take years to resolve."
For the guilty who are caught, the consequences are often so minor that they don't serve as a deterrent. When 118 seniors at Bardstown High School in Kentucky admitted they had copied content from the Internet in 2002, their punishment was simply to take an ethics seminar, write about plagiarism and help clean the campus.
Technology Fights Back
But schools are learning that technology can be their friend by helping them stay one step ahead of tech-savvy cheaters. In Florida's Palm Beach County school district, administrators have set up an Internet firewall so students can't use school computers to exchange e-mail and instant messages that might contain exam questions or answers. Greens Farms Academy, a K-12 school in Westport, Connecticut, uses Secureexam, which "locks" computers and prevents students from accessing the Web during exams. The software was installed two years ago, even though cheating is not commonplace. "The technology allowed us to be proactive," says Justine Fellows, coordinator of academic technology. "We wanted our students to feel they were on a level playing field."
Many high schools now require students to submit their papers to Web sites like TurnItIn.com. For about $1 per pupil per year the company analyzes writing assignments for more than 5,000 middle and high schools, comparing a digital copy of a student's composition to a database of books, journals, the Internet and previously submitted papers. Students and teachers get instant feedback with suspect material highlighted. Of the 100,000 papers TurnItIn.com checks daily, about a third contain unoriginal, unsourced "cut-and-paste" content, from a few sentences to a paragraph or even more.
Other places are taking a low-tech approach. After teachers in Gwinnett County, Georgia, noticed an alarming increase in plagiarized papers, the school district last year launched a curriculum to teach students what constitutes cheating, as well as the basics of research and writing. "We felt that a lot of plagiarism is unintentional," says Joyce Berube, a Gwinnett district director. "Kids are so bombarded with information on the Internet that many think the content is common knowledge."
Students Take Charge
Educational researchers believe the measures are starting to have an effect. In a 2006 survey of 35,000 high school students, 61% admitted to cheating, a decline from 74% in 2002. "There's a higher awareness around schools about the problem," says Michael Josephson. "At schools that are trying to stop it, the tide may be slowly turning."
In some cases it is students who are leading the charge. A year ago Alexander Levitt organized a committee of students, teachers and administrators at Algonquin to create an honor code that clearly spells out ethical behavior and defines academic misconduct. They've yet to determine specific penalties for those who plagiarize or cheat on exams, or those who fail to report classmates who do, but serious offenders may be expelled and have their transgressions noted on their transcripts.
Although his classmates have mixed views of Levitt—"I've been called a complainer and a goody-goody," he acknowledges—school officials praise his efforts. "An honor code is a kind of north star that guides you to a higher standard," says Beth Wittcoff, a committee member and principal of nearby Annie Sullivan Middle School. "It's a positive step." For his part, Levitt, who last fall started attending Vanderbilt University in Nashville, says he will keep tabs on the new regulations by staying in touch with committee members via e-mail and text messaging. "The same technology that allows kids to cheat will help me create a way to stop it," he says. "I like that."
How Parents Can Clamp Down
Your children need constant guidance and support to keep them from cheating. Education experts have this advice:
- Ask school administrators to create ways for kids to identify cheaters anonymously so they don't fear retaliation from others.
- Read your teens' essays to make sure that they're original. Check the computer history to see if your kids are using Web sites that sell written papers, and confront them if they are.
- Talk to your kids about the importance of ethical behavior and how cheating will hurt them in the long term. Point out negative examples when you see them and explain the consequences those people will suffer.
- Help manage your teens' schedules so they have time to write papers and prep for exams. Then they won't feel the need to cheat.
- Stop and ask yourself whether you're putting too much pressure on your children to succeed at school. Explain to your kids that ambition is fine, but honesty and integrity are more important than academic success achieved through deceit.
- To reduce plagiarism, demand that your school include lessons on proper paraphrasing and how to cite Internet sources.
- Ask teachers to develop multiple versions of tests to deter students from sharing answers via text messaging.
Copyright © 2008. Used with permission from the April 2007 issue of Family Circle magazine.