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High School's Dirty Secret: Cheaters Do Prosper

September 15, 1998|MARYANN HUDSON-HARVEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

He was known as the Ferris Bueller of his high school, the kid who stole tests out of teachers' cabinets, broke into the school's computer to change grades for himself and his friends, discovered the deserted copy room where upcoming tests were kept and, oh yes, had a great time at grad night.

Mike (student names have been changed for this article) was merely the most popular and celebrated cheater at his school. There are others, teenagers say, so many, in fact, that it is more common to cheat than not.

"The first time you do it, you feel bad, but you don't after that," Mike said. "You are always scared, but the teachers make it so easy for you. I would get tests from two years before, and they were the same ones. I don't know what teachers are thinking."

Students blame the teachers, and teachers blame the students, parents, society, themselves, even the president's moral code. As school begins this fall, many students and teachers say cheating in some form has become the norm at their respective schools, and not just among lower-level students.

"I cheated because I needed an A. It wasn't a matter of learning," said Christa, an honors student who began cheating in advanced placement classes in her junior year. "These days when you apply to college . . . everybody earns a 4.0. Even the smartest kid will cheat because of the pressures of getting into college. It's like brushing your teeth; it's something you do every day."

In fact, a poll of college-bound teenagers surveyed over the decade showed that 80% of the top-level students in the nation admitted to cheating. In the same poll, conducted annually by Who's Who Among American High School Students, two-thirds of the students and parents agreed with the statement "Cheating is not a big deal."

They can be candid, the teens say, because cheating is so common. They estimate that at any given time, about 40% of students are cheating.

"For example, you are in a class where the teacher has you exchange papers for grading, and so you just give the other student extra points," says Sarah, who says she did this often in an honors class. "I don't cheat extremely bad, and it's really not a problem. But I guess I always feel bad about it because it's wrong. I just ask God for forgiveness."

Three of these teens are entering top colleges this semester. One is already at UC Berkeley and says he wishes he had done things differently.

"I was very unprepared for college," Doug says. "I would much rather [classes] be for me like it is now, because when I get an A, I know I did it myself. I mean if I go in, take a test and totally tear it up, it is an awesome feeling."

All of these students admit to cheating to some degree, by loading formulas into their calculators, sitting so they can see each other's answer sheets or simply telling someone else the answer. But in a system in which cheating is measured in degrees, these are not considered major sins, merely acceptable behavior.

"Sometimes I feel bad about cheating, but it all depends what it is," Jamie says. "There is this one girl who just mooches off of everybody, and she just got into a college honors program, and that I think is bad. In every class, she doesn't come to school the day of a test and then gets the information from somebody. One of the teachers even made a crack about it."

Teachers also seem to have difficulty drawing the line.

"It has been a big hidden issue on our campus that, as a teacher, I would like to see us deal with," said one high school English teacher who didn't want to be identified because it would single out her school.

"Students can even buy papers off the Internet now and turn them in. But then sometimes my students will turn in a Longfellow poem and say they wrote it, and that becomes funny in that sense. I guess I catch kids doing things like that so often that even I have become desensitized. If I turned a student in for doing that, I would be turning them in all the time. So the question is, when do I turn a student in?"

Students say the penalty can be stiff if you get caught, but it rarely deters them. Doug says a teacher got word to him through a friend to stop cheating in a class, and he did stop, at least in that class.

"You feel ridiculous," Doug says.

But Christa, now in college, decided to stop on her own. After spending her junior year in high school cheating on an estimated 36 tests and quizzes--in one class--she said her conscience started to get to her.

"It had to be obvious that we were cheating, but I think some teachers just ignore it," Christa says. "There were about six of us, and we sat in the corner and copied each other's answers. But my senior year, I realized I really wanted to start learning. I was down on myself for cheating, and I think the Lord put something in my brain that said, 'Hey, you can do this.' So I quit, and I started enjoying my classes more and even got better grades.

"Kids would still ask me for answers my senior year, and it was really hard to say no. I don't know if it is the pressure or what. But everybody in the back of their mind knows it's not right. But that is how society is today. Everyone is cheating someone. But in college, you have to know the material to succeed in life."

Mike, by the way, dropped out of college but says he has no regrets.

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