CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS FOUNDATION
Bill of Rights in Action
WINTER 2008 (Volume 23, No. 4)
Students, teachers, and administrators are grappling with the problem of cheating in American high schools. The issues most often debated involve what constitutes cheating, why some students cheat, and what should be done about cheating.
Cheating is a serious problem in American schools. According to a 2006 survey of more than 35,000 high school students conducted by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, about 60 percent of the students admitted to cheating on an exam during the previous 12 months. A Princeton University study in 2001showed that 74 percent of high schoolers admitted to cheating or plagiarism at some point during the previous school year.
A similar study of 4,500 high schoolers done at Rutgers University, and published in 2002, echoed these studies. Almost three-quarters of the students had cheated at least once during high school. The sting of these figures is made worse by the attitudes expressed by the students. Fifty percent of the students polled said they saw nothing wrong with copying questions and answers from a test. Fifty-seven percent of the students said that copying some sentences for a written assignment or getting answers from someone who had taken a test was not a problem.
The consequences of widespread cheating are hard to measure, but many think it may affect the ethical fiber of society. Forty-six percent of students in a recent Who's Who Among American High School Students say that "declining social and moral values" are the biggest problem facing their generation. By contrast, only 15 percent of those students say that crime and violence are the main problems. Michael Josephson, founder of the Josephson Institute, concurs, saying that "we're harvesting a generation of nuclear inspectors, auto mechanics, and politicians who will do what it takes to get what they want."
What Is Cheating?
Webster's New World Dictionary defines "cheat" as "the act of deceiving or swindling." In the school setting, cheating normally refers to a breach of academic integrity. According to Gary J. Niels, author of "Academic Practices, School Culture, and Cheating Behavior," academic integrity means "respecting the value of words, thoughts, images and ideas . . . it includes an understanding of the principles of ownership with respect to words, thoughts and ideas."
The principles of academic integrity are fairly simple. Everyone's words and ideas deserve respect. No one has the right to take credit for someone else's words or ideas. We must "give credit where credit is due." We demand the same from others in return. This means, among other things, not copying someone else's essay or artwork, forging someone else's signature, or allowing someone else to copy our work.
Cheating takes numerous forms. One of the most frequently cited forms is copying someone else's work. Other forms include looking at notes during a test, writing a report for someone, arranging to give answers by signals, finding a test in the trash to memorize the answers, and getting answers from someone who had already taken a test or term paper. Some actions are considered cheating by some but not by others, such as studying someone else's notes or buying a published study guide instead of reading the assigned book.
A common cheating practice is plagiarism, copying another's writing without giving proper credit. In the Rutgers University study, 57 percent of the students felt that copying "a few sentences" from another source was no problem. Yet some students copy more than a few sentences, as a University of Virginia survey has shown. Faculty at the university say that the Internet is the "No. 1 societal force leading students to commit acts of plagiarism," according to Wired magazine news.
The Internet provides a rich source of information on virtually any topic. Students can easily copy information without even typing, insert it in a school assignment, and pass it off as their own. For more advanced cheaters, the Internet has "term paper mills," databases with hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of pre-written and ready-made term papers and essays. These databases offer papers for a fee. For a larger fee, many of these companies will custom-write papers. Such companies existed before the Internet, but the Internet has made them more popular. The Kimbel Library at Costal Carolina University lists these companies. In its first listing in 1999, there were 35 term paper sites on the Internet. By 2006, the number had grown to more than 250 sites.
Many states make it a crime for businesses to write term papers for students. Businesses get around such laws by posting disclaimers saying that the papers they are selling are for research purposes only and are not to be turned in for class credit.
Why Do People Cheat?
Access to the Internet provides a temptation, but what makes people give in to such a temptation? There are many reasons.
Donald McCabe, who conducted the Rutgers University surveys mentioned above, says: "Students sense a deterioration of general societal values, and incorporate that into their own lives." In other words, cheating does not have the stigma it once had in American society.
Some researchers believe economic instability motivates people to cheat. Social critic Christopher Lasch commented that business competition drives people not to excel, but rather to "struggle to avoid crushing defeat." In a race to get advantages over others, cheating is tempting.
Studies reveal that students who cheat try to justify it. Cheaters might resent teachers who give them meaningless assignments or "busywork." Students might say that teachers do not seem to care about cheating. They might complain that cheating is necessary because the teacher's pace of instruction is too overwhelming.
Some students might do their own risk-benefit analysis. They might think that they will not get caught. Or they might believe that if they do get caught, the punishment will not be severe.
Often high-achieving or more affluent students find themselves in an atmosphere ripe for cheating. Many adolescents in wealthy families endure intense pressures to succeed. According to Niels (who heads the Winchester Thurston School in Pennsylvania), privileged young people "believe that they must choose occupations that befit their social status and they must earn an income which enables them to maintain a lifestyle equivalent to their parents'." Niels cites a study on adolescent alienation, published in 1990 in the Journal of Research and Development in Education. It states that private schools might unintentionally promote cheating because of the heightened expectation that students must perform well academically. The Who's Who survey, cited above, also showed that four out of five adolescents at the top of their classes cheated at some point during their academic career.
What Should Be Done?
Schools have implemented different methods to curb cheating. The spectrum runs from open discussion of cheating and plagiarism in the classroom to school-wide honor codes. A 1990 study in the Journal of Educational Research suggested that the impulse for students to cheat decreases when teachers explain the purpose and relevance of course assignments. Also, students feel more pressure when the grade depends on only a few heavily weighted tests. Increasing the number and variety of graded assignments lowers the pressure on students. According to the study, teachers and students agreed that clear and well-structured objectives and lessons, teacher communication with students who have academic difficulties, seating assignments, and close teacher supervision during tests all would reduce the likelihood of cheating.
A similar approach could reduce plagiarism on term papers. Teachers could make interim assignments before the whole paper is due. These might include a thesis statement, an outline of the paper, a summary of the paper, and a rough draft. The teacher would grade and make comments and suggestions on the interim assignments. Students would be expected to respond to the comments in the next interim assignment.
Other studies show that as the risk for students getting caught for cheating increases, the instances of cheating decrease. One way to increase the risk is implementing an honor code. A code lets students know that the school has core values. Many high schools and colleges already use codes to define cheating and clearly outline consequences. For example, Brandeis University's honor code states that:
Every member of the University community is expected to maintain the highest standards of academic honesty. A student shall not receive credit for work that is not the product of the student's own effort.
It also states if a student "either knowingly or through negligence" provides "[his or her] own work to assist another student in satisfying a course requirement," then that shall constitute "an infringement of academic honesty." The code further states: "Talking during an examination, or possession or use of unauthorized materials or equipment during an examination constitutes an infringement of academic honesty."
Boston College High School requires that all students and faculty sign an "Integritas Pledge" ("In the spirit of honor"). Students are expected to write "Integritas" and their signature on the top of every assignment, quiz, test, and exam. An elected "Honor Council" of students, supervised by a faculty advisor, judges violations of the honor code. In general, the code defines cheating as "deliberately giving or receiving unauthorized information on any assignment or examination," and as "passing off or attempting to pass off another's work as your own."
Other schools are turning to the Internet and sophisticated software to combat plagiarism. The digitalization of information makes it easy to copy someone else's work. It also makes it to easier to catch cases of plagiarism. Once upon a time, a student could go to a library, find an obscure book, and copy it word-for-word without much danger of being caught. Today, that obscure book is more and more likely to be in a database, and a student plagiarizing it will be caught if a school employs the proper technique.
Teachers at some schools rely on Internet search engines. They simply type a suspicious phrase into the search engine and see if it appears on the Internet. But more and more schools are turning to sophisticated plagiarism-detection services, such as TurnItIn and MyDropBox. These programs used to be utilized exclusively by colleges, but today many high schools also use them. Although each works differently, they basically detect plagiarism by maintaining large databases of articles from magazines, journals, newspapers, books, the Internet, and previously submitted student papers. When a teacher submits a student's paper to the company, the paper is compared to the database to see if any part of it has been copied.
1. Do you think cheating is more common in schools today than in the past? Why or why not?
2. How would you define cheating? Do you think the following are instances of cheating? Rank the instances you consider cheating in order of seriousness.
a. A student copies a few sentences off the Internet into her English paper. She does not put the sentences in quotation marks or otherwise attribute the sentences to the actual author.
b. Almost everyone in a math class is cheating and doing well. Ron has never cheated but is not doing well in the class. He decides to sneak notes into the final exam so that he can do better.
c. A student gets an A on her history paper. She sells it to an Internet term paper mill.
d. A student sleeps through class but borrows his classmate's notes to study for the exam.
3. Why do you think people cheat?
4. It is often said: "Cheaters only hurt themselves." Do you agree? Explain.
5. How have schools addressed the problem of cheating? What are the pros and cons of these approaches? What do you think should be done about cheating? Why?
What Should Be Done About Cheating?
In this activity, students discuss and create their own honor code.
1. Form small groups of students. Each group should have a discussion leader, task master, and a recorder.
2. Each group should:
a. Discuss these questions:
(1) What should be the purpose of the honor code?
(2) What values should the honor code promote?
(3) What definition of cheating should be included in the honor code?
(4) What consequences there should be for cheating?
(5) How the code will be enforced?
b. Draft an honor code, being careful that the consequences and enforcement correspond to the purpose and values of the code.
c. Be prepared to report its conclusions to the questions and its honor code to the class.