LA JOLLA — Overwhelmed by parental pressure to achieve top grades or simply caught unprepared for exams, most of the 1,355 students at La Jolla High School choose a time-honored way out:
They flash signals during exams. They copy one another's homework. They plagiarize information for term papers. Aided--at least in the past--by naive, unsuspecting teachers, they cheat so frequently that the school's honest students have often felt foolish and frustrated because they played by the rules.
In a survey compiled in February, 65% of the students at the city's premier high school admitted to cheating on at least 1 of their previous 10 assignments and tests. On any given assignment, 17% of them were cheating. The survey also showed that students from three different ability levels cheated at the same rate.
"I don't know anybody who hasn't cheated at least once," said senior Hugh Dandrade. "It's a way of life."
"Last year, if I didn't know an answer, I'd just see if I could get it," said Cathy Stevenson, a senior who said she has stopped cheating this year. "I knew it (was) wrong. But I wasn't having a heavy guilt trip and walking around (thinking) 'Oh, a sin.' "
Research shows that students elsewhere cheat at least as frequently as those at La Jolla High. In a statewide survey conducted last spring by the state Department of Education, 75% of the students admitted to cheating on tests and nearly 60% said they did it regularly.
But La Jolla High's reputation as one of the nation's best secondary schools makes the degree of dishonesty a bit more startling. The only Western public high school belonging to the Cum Laude honor society, La Jolla High each year produces about two dozen National Merit semifinalists and sends many of its students to the nation's top colleges.
"We were astounded, absolutely astounded by the level (of cheating)," Principal J.M. Tarvin said. "I would have guessed 3 in 10 did something that bordered on being dishonest."
School officials disagree about whether students at less competitive high schools cheat as often. Tarvin believes they do. Ruby Cremaschi-Schwimmer, principal of Lincoln Preparatory High School, where test scores have historically been among the school district's lowest, believes they don't.
"I'm sure there's some cheating at Lincoln High School, but I know it's less than that," said Cremaschi-Schwimmer, who is trying to raise academic performance at the Southeast San Diego school. "As we put the screws on, that may happen."
Students everywhere cheat, and La Jolla High is one school confronting the problem head-on, a method for which the blunt Tarvin is known. With angered students and parents pressuring for change, the school last month sent home a new academic honesty policy, spelling out seven kinds of cheating and their corresponding punishments.
Teachers were warned this semester to take more precautions against cheating and were asked to discuss with students the need for ethical conduct--inside and outside the classroom.
"Everyone has said for 30 years, for 40 years, for 50 years that cheating is a problem," Tarvin said. "And La Jolla High decided that we are going to do something about it. Right, wrong or even, just the fact that we have done something about it is a positive" step.
The push for honesty, fueled by complaints by students who felt penalized for being honest during tests, came on the heels of some blatant examples of cheating:
- Last year, a student was caught photocopying pages of a multiday examination given in an advanced placement biology course. He was flunked from the course.
- Also last year, a physiology teacher who was skeptical of claims of rampant cheating made up three different exams for three separate classes. When the tests were completed, it became apparent that a huge majority of students had received the answers--the wrong answers--from students in previous classes.
- Two years ago, a student obtained the answers to an exam, printed them on tiny scraps of paper and taped the paper to pencils. He was caught selling the pencils to his peers and punished.
Teachers and administrators say they are sure that students have banks of exams and term papers in their homes.
"There are files in this community that will take care of any test that I've ever given," said John Carey, who has taught at La Jolla High for 25 years.
Some students have established personal honesty hierarchies in the belief that various kinds of cheating are morally acceptable. Several said that the work load at La Jolla is so heavy that they sometimes copy friends' homework when they don't have the time to finish it themselves.
"I'm not going to say that minor cheating is OK, because it's not," one student said. "But you can't do all the homework all the time, so it's a way to get it done."