By Goode, Stephen
Insight on the News , Vol. 15, No. 35
Three-quarters of all high-school and college students admit to cheating on tests and papers. Not only do they cheat, but they justify their behavior as business as usual.
The figures are shocking and more than a bit depressing. According to a 1998 survey of nearly 21,000 California students by the Josepheson Institute of Ethics in Marina del Rey, 70 percent of high-school students (and 54 percent of middleschool students) said they'd cheated on an exam in the last 12 months, an increase of 6 percent since the survey two years prior.
It hasn't always been that way. Surveys of college students in the 1940s showed that 20 percent of them admitted to having cheated in high school, according to Stephen Davis, a psychology professor at Emporia State University in Kansas. The steep increase in cheating in high schools and colleges didn't happen until the late 1960s and early 1970s, when it fluctuated between 75 and 98 percent of college students. The rates haven't fallen since.
Some things have changed, though. In times past, less-academically talented students were most likely to cheat, the ones for whom book learning was a chore and classroom duties dull fare. Now the best students are doing the cheating -- those most likely to go to college and consequently eager to line up A's and B's on their report cards. A poll of 3,123 students on the 1998 list of Who's Who Among American High School Students -- the "best" of the nation's 16- to 18-year-olds -- found 80 percent of them admitting to cheating in some form to get to the top of their class. Of those who cheated, 95 percent said they hadn't been caught, and a majority declared that they were untroubled by their behavior.
Also changed is the gender of cheaters. Thirty years ago, the vast majority of students who admitted to cheating were males. In most contemporary studies, little or no difference exists between the numbers of dishonest males and females.
The good students cheat because they fear losing their competitive advantage, says Davis. "Cheating in high school is for grades" students tell Davis. "Cheating in college is for a career." Others have still more bizarre rationales. "Ten minutes of cheating is better than two hours of studying" one student said, evidently expecting Davis to agree or at least understand his point of view. Another justified cheating because "I feel good that I'm going to get a good grade."
Many students justify their own easy attitude toward dishonesty by pointing to well-known figures in government, sports and other facets of life whose ethics are questionable. "Integrity is in increasingly short supply" says Tom Lickona, director of the Center for the 4th and 5th R's, a character-education foundation at the State University of New York at Cortland.
The cheating doesn't stop with high school or college. Employers increasingly complain about resumes from job applicants that are filled with misinformation and outright lies about a person's abilities and experience, Lickona tells Insight. He cites a study made at SUNY-Cortland 10 years ago that found that most students there regarded cheating as morally wrong. More than half said they wouldn't cheat even if they knew they wouldn't get caught. "That was the good news," says Lickona. "The bad news was that the other half said they wouldn't hesitate to cheat if they knew they wouldn't get caught."
Many students who cheat do so in traditional ways, familiar to anyone who has gone to school. Sixty-seven percent of the high-achieving Who's Who students said they had cheated by copying someone else's homework, for example, while 40 percent said they'd cheated on a quiz or a test.
But the computer age has spawned another kind of dishonesty: Students now download ready-made term papers from online sources. Kenneth Sahr, who created the Website School Sucks that provides such term papers says his site averages 80,000 hits a day. …