Student Cheating Won't Go Away Soon

Something wrong with a system that places such great pressure on students

Posted Oct 01, 2012

Cheating by students isn’t new. The person who says they never cheated as a student is much like George Washington saying he never told a lie. But student cheating does seem to be more prevalent than ever.

A front page story in the NY Times about Stuyvesant High School, noted for its academic achievements, continues to report on the scandal that has rocked the institution since June when 71 juniors were caught cheating on a state exam.

This article describes how students cheated: the old-fashioned writing the answers on a scrap of hidden paper; copying homework answers on Facebook; Googling on a smart phone during a test; getting answers from those who have already taken the exam, amongst others other examples.

The article also describes why the students at New York’s flagship high school cheated. Students say that time spent memorizing the periodic table could better be spent studying other subjects. In a class where students sat they “literally learned nothing all year,” answers were discussed aloud during the exam. Students, obviously brilliant in math, calculated the odds of getting caught against getting an A.

Not all cheating is equal at Stuyvesant. For example, few see a problem with copying homework but are somewhat bothered by cheating on tests. The gravity of the offense also depends on the context. So cheating in a required class is more acceptable than cheating on an Advancement Placement test.

An anonymous student says, “It’s like, ‘I’ll keep my integrity and fail this test’—no. No one wants to fail a test.”

Except for the test of one’s character. But putting the blame solely on students misses the larger picture. There is something wrong with a system that places such great pressure to succeed that honesty takes a back seat. A GPA of 85 is considered a failure. At this prestigious school, it isn’t simply that all are college bound but they are bound to get into Ivy Leagues or suffer humiliation.

Today I would be a failure at my alma mater, with my 85 average getting me into CCNY but certainly not Columbia. But today’s pressure to succeed in ways that were inconceivable to me isn’t confined to elite schools. Everywhere middle class parents are pushing their children make honor roll, get tutors, take AP classes, join clubs, do community service and anything else to distinguish themselves. There must have been fellow students who pushed themselves this way when I was at Stuyvesant, but I don’t remember them. While we were a class of nerds, we weren’t a class of grinds.

Who today has time to assess moral choices when only success matters and success is measured by being admitted to the college of your choice?

Learning for learning’s sake is a thing of the past. Education is now a commodity. If a parent is going to spend $30-40,000 a year on college, it better be a good investment, with a financial return as the main concern. Majors are chosen because they have a financial payout. So liberal arts subjects in college languish while business and communication flourish.

Anxiety about the future is understandable. Job prospects for today’s graduates are dimmer than when I graduated. But it’s more than that. It’s also that students and parents expect more.

So the pressure to succeed in high school leads to students cutting corners and finding little wrong in cheating, if it gets you what you need. This isn’t so different than what happens in the work environment. If we are to address the moral creep downward, it is necessary to assess what we want from education. More importantly, we need to assess what we want from life.

Sacrificing one’s integrity comes with a price tag that is due at the end of one’s life. Children can’t think long term this way. But parents can and society must.