Has High School and College Cheating Become the New Normal?

Back to February 2013 Ed Reporter

Has High School and College
Cheating Become the New Normal?

Cheating at many levels of the American education system took place in 2012. Students at an elite New York City public high school cheated in order to gain acceptance to elite colleges. Students at Harvard and the University of North Carolina cheated in classes: the former by engaging in prohibited collaboration; the latter in a scenario arranged for them by educators. In several states, educators changed students’ answers on achievement tests so their school would rank higher. Aspiring teachers in three states paid to have another person take tests that enabled them to get teaching jobs.

High School Cheating

In a survey taken in March 2012 by the school newspaper, 80% of students at Stuyvesant High School, an elite public high school in Manhattan, said they had cheated. The high school has graduated four Nobel laureates. Admission is competitive and based on scores on a city-wide exam. Once attending class, surrounded by others who have similar intellect and potential to theirs, some students panic and resort to cheating. Often they rationalize their actions. A senior at Stuyvesant told the New York Times, “It’s like, ‘I’ll keep my integrity and fail this test’ – no. No one wants to fail a test.” Somewhere along the way, this student failed to learn that integrity is a precious commodity.

Methods used to cheat at Stuyvesant ranged from old-fashioned to high-tech: students wrote formulas on their person, or on the inside of a water bottle, they worked in collaboration on take-home exams, and they used smartphones to text questions and answers, or to photograph and send tests to students taking the same test later in the day. Cheating on the New York State Regent’s exam resulted in eleven Stuyvesant students receiving ten-day suspensions, while about five times that number received lesser suspensions. Many students retook the exam.

A Stuyvesant graduate who is now at an elite college said of fellow Stuyvesant students to whom she gave her homework to copy, “I respect them and think they have integrity.” Of the students she “helped” she says, “They’re proud of their achievements in college, and sometimes the only way you could’ve gotten there is to kind of botch your ethics for a couple of things.” (New York Times, 09-25-12)

Cheating at Harvard University

As many as 125 students are being investigated by Harvard University for allegedly sharing answers on a final exam taken in the spring semester of 2012. In Government 1310, “Introduction to Congress,” a class of 279 students was allowed to access the textbook and the internet, but they were expressly told not to discuss the take-home exam with others. An investigation was launched when the professor brought the exam to the attention of the Harvard Administrative Board. He said he “detected similar strings of words in multiple questions on multiple exams, including the same unusual responses, the same misunderstandings of course materials, and an identical typo,” according to the Harvard newspaper The Crimson (09-12-12).

In The Crimson, students attempted to blame the professor for their having resorted to cheating. One student complained both that an exam question was unclear for having used a term not previously defined in class, and that the professor cancelled office hours the morning the exam was due.

A commentary on the cheating at Harvard appeared in the Christian Science Monitor and was titled “Harvard cheating scandal? It could be bad teaching.” The author, an NYU professor, stated, “Nothing justifies [the students'] alleged cheating,” but he goes on to justify their cheating by indicating it was possibly the poor quality of the course that provoked it. (09-13-12)

Some of the alleged cheaters are members of the men’s basketball team that in 2012 participated in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1946. There are also football and baseball players accused, along with non-athletes.

CNN reported that an internal Harvard e-mail obtained by The Crimson suggested that student athletes accused of cheating take a year off in order to retain NCAA eligibility to play their sport in the event the university finds them guilty of cheating, and as punishment forces the athlete to take a year off from school. As CNN reported, Harvard seemed to be trying “to figure out a way to follow the letter of the law but make sure there was minimal damage to its athletic program.” Both the co-captains of the Harvard men’s basketball team are involved in the cheating scandal, and both have withdrawn from school for next year, apparently following the suggestion by the university to protect their eligibility.

In an opinion piece, CNN negatively contrasted the Harvard University reaction to the 1950 West Point response to cheating by football players there. In the latter case, 90 cadets caught cheating were expelled, including football players. The expulsions resulted in the previously winning Army football team losing all but two games in 1951. West Point chose “damage to their athletic program” over condoning cheating (09-09-12).

Cheating at the University of North Carolina

Football and basketball players have gained academically by dishonest means at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (UNC-CH). Phony classes were arranged for athletes and other students in the Department of African-American Studies; classes in which no attendance was required, papers were written by tutors, and plagiarism was allowed. Details of the scandal were exposed in 2012, but allegations go back as far as 1997.

An internal faculty-led investigation of the African-American Studies program released a report in May 2012. The report referred to “impermissible extra benefits,” and stated that “serious course anomalies were identified,” and that in some cases of independent study courses there was “no evidence that the faculty member of record or any other faculty member actually supervised the course and the work, although grade rolls were signed and submitted.” Grades “were submitted to the Office of the Registrar with faculty signatures that appear to be forged.” Professors say they did not teach the classes and the signatures are not theirs.

Another report, conducted by former North Carolina Gov. James Martin and concluded in December 2012, found that 216 classes in the Department of African-American Studies had proven or potential problems, and found 560 suspected unauthorized grade changes. The report said, “Non-athletes were also enrolled in the courses, receiving the same good grades as the athletes,” and stated that it was “an academic scandal, not a sports scandal” (Raleigh News and Observer, 12-21-12).

According to the Raleigh News and Observer, “even if the scheme did not start with a goal of keeping athletes eligible to play sports, there is evidence to suggest that it ended up that way. Records from the academic support program for athletes show that staff there knew about the no-show classes and knew they were not intended to be challenging.” (12-29-12)

The investigations led to the resignation of the chairman of the department. The university chancellor will also resign effective at the end of this school year.

Aspiring Teachers Cheat

In Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee, prospective teachers allegedly paid Clarence Mumford, Sr., a former employee of the Memphis City School District, to send someone else to take tests that would allow them to become a teacher, or to receive special certification in a particular subject. Using a fake driver’s license, the stand-in would arrive at the testing center and take the test. It is alleged that this fraud has been going on since 1995. If convicted, Mumford faces 2 to 20 years in prison for each of over 60 counts. Teachers who paid Mumford $1,500 to $3,000 to send in a ringer face the same prison sentence, but most only have one count to face.

Additionally disturbing is the fact that the exams in question are easy and anyone unable to pass them has no business leading a classroom.

According to the New York Times, the cheating ring was initially detected in 2009 when a test proctor noticed the same Memphis substitute teacher take two tests on the same day; in the morning he used a man’s name and in the afternoon he used a woman’s name (11-27-2012).

Educators Cheat

Tying remuneration to student performance may be too much temptation for some to resist. In order to make scores on standardized tests appear better than the students’ actual learning warranted, widespread cheating by educators in recent years has rocked school districts in Georgia, the District of Columbia, New Jersey, and California. Smaller incidents have been uncovered in other states.

The cheating in Georgia was widespread with dozens of educators being found to have falsified students’ test results. The D.C. investigation resulted in several schools’ test results being invalidated and some schools receiving letters of reprimand.

The California Department of Education reduced the state rank of 23 schools in 2012 because of cheating on standardized tests. Educators committed a range of violations from failure to cover bulletin boards showing test answers to coaching during tests. At one school, a teacher who was also the school’s testing coordinator “corrected student tests and sent students back to their desk to fix incorrect responses.” (Los Angeles Times, 10-29-2012)

In New Jersey, investigators found erasure rates at some schools that were six or seven times the averages of other schools. At one school “the rate of improvement for students in the sixth grade over previous scores defied all odds,” according to the N.J. Department of Education report.

The Future of Cheating

Some say the cheating scandals are a natural result of efforts to systematically remove Judeo-Christian values, or any values at all, from our education system and from society as a whole. Moral relativism removes the moral absolutes of right and wrong. When students, teachers, and schools fail to see that success is valuable only when achieved through honesty and perseverance, they are ripe for cheating.

The editors of the Christian Science Monitor stated, “Intellectual honesty remains the bedrock of academia, not to mention an essential in business and citizenship. . . . Institutions like Harvard have long sought to instill the principles of honesty, but that often takes a back seat to a competition for grades and a drive for success.” (09-06-2012)

IndoctriNation edited by Charles LaVerdiere (see Education Reporter book review, January 2013) includes a letter written by Sarah LaVerdiere, explaining her resignation as a teacher in the public school system. Her letter to parents offers reasons that she can no longer participate in the broken school system. She says, “Instead of producing focused, self-disciplined children, the fruits of this flawed system are children who are overly
confident, self-centered, motivated only by rewards, rebellious, and totally unprepared to face adverse consequences for their bad choices as they move into adulthood.” These are attributes and behaviors that lead students, as well as adults, to cheat.

The fact that so many of the cheaters in the 2012 cases are adults is perhaps the most shocking aspect. Perhaps children are still learning and testing the waters. But the adults involved have failed to gain the wisdom that age should have given them, making it difficult for their students to ever gain that wisdom.

Surely there are many students and teachers who prize integrity over getting into and staying in an elite academic program, winning in sports, getting a raise due to improved student performance, or getting a job through cheating. But too many do not. Schools in which integrity is ignored and overrun by ambition and deceit are “educating” students to become morally bankrupt adult citizens who do whatever they deem necessary to get ahead.