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High tech cheats, low tech reasons

Students invent new methods, schools counter with new safeguards. The basic issue is unchanged.

March 30, 2008|Carla Rivera | Times Staff Writer

An ironic subtext of a Society and Ethics class he led one recent morning was that several of those present had been involved in a 2005 cheating incident at New Roads in which about 50 students were briefly suspended for exploiting a computer glitch to get answers to a math assignment.

"I take as a given that young people are going to make bad decisions," said Bryan. "Now is the time to catch them, when the result is not going to be a federal indictment."

There is no doubt that students are conflicted. Bryan posed a series of scenarios to his class, involving shoplifting, stealing, plagiarism, drug use and cheating, and asked: What is more important: friendship or values?

Only one student admitted to cheating in the past year, and many said cheating and theft were wrong under any circumstances. But one, who said that his friends shoplift, said he would discourage them from stealing from a small mom-and-pop store but might encourage taking items from one owned by a big corporation.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, April 02, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Cheating: An article in Sunday's California section about cheating in schools misspelled the name of former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair as Jason.

Students said there is a temptation to cheat if the consequence of not cheating is a bad grade.

"You're afraid your parents will punish you and take things away from you, and maybe you really, really studied hard to pass," said senior Johnny Winestock, 17.

The most recent survey conducted by the Josephson Institute, in 2006, found virtually no geographical or gender differences in the numbers of students who admit to cheating. Students attending parochial and private schools cheated at a slightly higher rate, as did varsity athletes. And there is anecdotal evidence that top-achieving students also cheat at higher rates, said Josephson.

The number of self-admitted cheaters peaked during a survey in 2004 at 72%, before falling to 61% in 2006. That is about the same number as 1992, when the first survey was conducted. But Josephson said it may be that fewer students are now willing to admit they cheat.

And he dismissed justifications that students are under more pressure than those of past years.

"I'm appalled by that argument," he said, adding that it becomes a silent apology for cheaters. "If that's the case, then don't get mad at Enron, because they were under pressure, and don't get mad at Jason Blair [the former New York Times reporter who was found to have plagiarized and fabricated articles] because he was under pressure."

Many students themselves also discount the idea that they are overwhelmed.

"You have friends who are into a lot of drama," said Alyssa Atain, 16, who attends the private Vistamar School in El Segundo. "There's drugs and alcohol. You're thinking about college, and are you going away and are you strong enough to go away. But I've always pushed myself a lot to do well rather than feeling pressure from the outside. And one thing they do very well at Vistamar is teach you to take pride in who you are as a student."

Richard Perlmutter, whose 16-year-old daughter Ruby attends New Roads, said he was attracted to the school in large part because "the culture here is that beating other people and getting ahead is not the primary objective."

There is an increasing body of opinion among educators that cheating may be an expression of the way schools approach teaching and learning. And as schools and teachers come to face more high-stakes standardized testing, the worse it will become, said Gary J. Niels, who has studied cheating behavior and wrote a 2003 paper on honor codes.

Studies found that when teachers were vague in explaining the relevance and importance of curricula, students perceived the lessons as a waste of time and were more likely to cheat. Fact-driven data that had to be "regurgitated," said Niels, also correlated to higher incidents of cheating.

Niels, who is head of the private Winchester Thurston School in Pittsburgh, also found that honor and integrity codes have little influence if they are purely adult or faculty driven. Although there are practical techniques that can reduce cheating, the entire school community must participate if it is to be prevented.

Even with the ease of access to new technology, the Harvard Westlake students who were caught cheating took the old-fashioned route -- they apparently distracted teachers and stole history and Spanish exams while teachers weren't looking. School officials are dealing with the breach and are holding discussions with students about how to abide by the school's honor code. Six sophomores were expelled and more than a dozen students who allegedly viewed the tests were suspended.


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