As recent cheating scandals at Harvard College and elsewhere have illustrated, cheating at all levels of academia is on the rise. Students, particularly those at competitive schools, often justify cheating as necessary to keep up with their incredible academic demands. Here are some other reasons why cheating is on the rise, and what teachers, parents, and students can do about it:
Reason #1: High-Stakes Testing
High-stakes testing is on the rise in public and private schools nationwide, partly in response to the No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law in 2002 by President George W. Bush. As part of this law, schools’ funding and reputation are tied to the scores earned by their students on tests. As a result, students—and even teachers—can feel under a great deal of pressure, and there have been some documented cases in which teachers or administrators have doctored test results. When teachers and administrators feel so much pressure for students to perform, they may unintentionally encourage a culture of taking shortcuts.
While private school students do not need to take these tests, they still have to take achievement tests such as the ERBs, given by the same organization that also administers private school admissions tests for young children. In addition, students have to take the ISEE, SSAT, and other admissions tests for entry into private school, not to mention college admissions tests such as the ACT or SAT. All of these tests often impart the message, whether or not it is intended, that what counts for students is the result, not the process of learning. As a consequence, students can feel tempted to skip steps that are necessary to learning or even feel that the ends—in this case, high test scores—justify the means, which can include cheating. While that is not to say that there is widespread cheating on every standardized test, these tests create conditions that can tempt some students to cheat.
Reason #2: The Internet
While the internet is a wonderful tool for research, it requires students to learn—and teachers to teach—very explicit rules and guidelines about plagiarism. It is very easy for students to cut and paste wide swathes of text from an internet page, without understanding how to paraphrase the material. Teachers must explain and model how students can put research documents into their own words. In addition, the internet is rife with paper-writing companies and other resources that make it easy for students to take shortcuts that amount to cheating. While it can be acceptable for students to consult other sources if, for example, they do not understand a difficult novel, they still need to struggle with the text itself as part of the learning process, and they are cheating themselves if they do not.
Reason #3: School Cultures
Many students in middle and high school, as well as college, state that they cheat because it’s accepted. They believe, often incorrectly, that everyone is doing it, so they think cheating has become an accepted part of how to “do school.” Parents and teachers must reinforce the idea that effort counts more than results, and, to this end, formulate and enforce an honor code that clearly tells students what is acceptable academic behavior—and what isn’t. Apparently, some of the Harvard students who were recently caught sharing answers on a test did so because they thought this type of group work was accepted. If students are responsible for knowing—and signing—the honor code each academic year, they can be held to these standards, and parents and teachers can enforce the rules and guidelines about academic work as part of the students’ learning process. After all, a large part of school is learning about integrity and even struggle—not just performing up to standards.