Cheater Nation

It was a popular political science class at a prestigious university; there was standing room only for the final exam. I paused several times to rub my cramping hand and to nudge awake a friend who’d stayed up late to cram. As we neared the end of the three hours, students filtered out slowly, dropping their official “blue books” on the table in the front of the professor. As I felt my own anxiety rise because I was not yet done, I noticed the professor had asked several male students to wait. She dramatically flipped over the blue books one at a time and announced, “You cheated.” She’d marked each legitimate blue book with a small dot on the back. They’d brought in their own blue books—already filled with notes and outlines they could use for their essays. My indignation was quick and pure. I thought: And that’s why I’m transferring next semester.

I was a smug, sanctimonious 19-year-old who oddly believed that very intelligent, high-strung and competitive women aren’t tempted to cheat. But I was right about one thing. The culture of a place—whether it’s an entire institution or an individual class—sets the broader tone of etiquette and protocol. We conducted ourselves in the context of a very strict honor code at Smith College. Although we labored together in challenging classes, the work we completed was our own. I never—and knew of no one else who—wrote papers with others or discussed answers to take-home exams. Although I’m sure there were some cheaters at my college—after all, we were all under tremendous (albeit almost entirely self-imposed) pressure—it was not considered acceptable. Smith spelled out the academic rules clearly, emphatically, and often.

The recent Harvard University cheating scandal—in which over 100 students in a government course have been implicated—has brought public hand-wringing to the storied institution, but as Rebecca Harrington reveals in a recent New York Times Op Ed, there has always been “cheating along the Charles.” She references an 1881 Gilbert and Sullivan song parody in the Harvard newspaper: “I always wore a pony and told big fibs/And examination found me with a new set of cribs/I worked my cribs so carefullee/That now I am tutor in the old shantee.” H.M.S. Pinafore aside, in the absence of a well-defined, unambiguous honor code, a culture of cheating can flourish. In this recent incident, students routinely shared work; TAs disclosed essay answers; and groups of undergrads crafted similar answers to take-home exams. Their behavior was seemingly permissible within the mores in which they operated. Indeed, many expressed resentment at being accused of wrong-doing. As one student complained, “I was just someone who shared notes, and now I’m implicated in this.”

This absence of well-defined parameters is not unlike what happened in the massive Atlanta teacher cheating scandal. Certain teachers at 44 Atlanta-area schools routinely changed students’ answers on high-stakes standardized tests. These tests evaluate student achievement, individual teacher effectiveness, and a school’s academic health and rigor. Simply put, they are a really big deal. But what happens when a sweeping high-stakes test does not have a concomitant comprehensive system in place to uphold its integrity? People cheat.

An investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) has found that 196 American school districts exhibit patterns of suspicious test scores similar to those in Atlanta. As Michael Pell reports, most states allow districts to do their own internal investigation of suspected cheating and “make almost no attempt to screen test results for irregularities.” Pell asserts, “A computer analysis of erasures on test papers and statistical analysis of improbable gains on tests are proven ways to catch cheating,” but most states will not spend money to guarantee test result integrity. This is naïve. A survey of 3,000 Arizona teachers—that Phoenix-based educator Sharon Rideau completed for her 2008 doctoral thesis—indicated that 50% had either cheated themselves or knew a colleague who’d cheated on standardized tests.

Like the teachers who change answers for their students—and then start believing the hype about their school’s successes—most cheaters are unaware of the extent of their dishonesty. In multiple studies, Duke University researcher Dan Ariely and his colleagues found that students—given the opportunity to use materials seemingly inadvertently provided by test proctors—changed their answers without compunction. But when proctors stated a clear rule, the behavior changed. Explained doctoral student Zoe Chance who worked with Ariely, “If you specifically tell people in these studies not to use the answer key and just sign their name, they won’t look at it.”

But it is difficult to convince students of the importance of having honor and integrity when Lance Armstrong makes millions as a highly effective cheater, and successful art forger Ken Perenyi becomes a media darling. We’ve come to exalt success, regardless of how it’s obtained, and as a result our “ethical muscles have atrophied,” as Harvard professor Howard Gardner argues. The evidence shows that students—at all levels of achievement—cheat more frequently, and technological advances make cheating easier, as a recent study at Duquesne University found. The more online tools students are allowed to use on an assignment, the more likely they are to copy others’ work.

Numerous studies also indicate that this rampant problem can be mitigated by clear ethical guidelines from teachers, parents and institutions—if we are only willing to take a forceful, unequivocal stand.

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