It’s Not A Competition, Guys

What drives students to cheat?

Last June, 71 students at Stuyvesant High School, one of the most prestigious public schools in New York City, were caught cheating during the statewide Regents exam, New York’s equivalent of the PSSA. The chief architect of the cheating scandal, Nayeem Ashan, managed to type out, during the physics exam, “multiple-choice answers into his phone, then send them to his friends, all of whom were taking the test at the same time, many in other parts of the school,” reported New York Magazine. In return, Ashan expected similar assistance during the Spanish exam, his weakest subject.

But Ashan was in for a surprise. Halfway through the test (during which Ashan took pictures of Spanish questions, texted them to his friends, and received responses in fully translated English), school principal Stanley Teitel entered the room, confiscated his phone, and escorted him to the front office. The 71 participants in the cheating ring received five to ten day suspensions, while Ashan has since been expelled from the school.

News of the incident has been reported in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and throughout the national media. One article in the Times described a culture where cheating is widespread, with “many students [banding] together, sharing homework and test advice in a common understanding that they simply have to survive until they reach their goals: dream colleges and dream jobs.” Nathaniel Giraldi, a recent graduate of Stuyvesant, wrote that “the importance of grades was emphasized from the first day by the administration . . . the difference between a 93 and a 94 means the difference between an Ivy League school and a slightly lower ranked one.”

The students of “Stuy,” as it’s lovingly referred to, have candidly admitted to the prevalence of cheating in their school. “Welcome to another year at Stuyvesant,” wrote the editors of The Spectator, the school’s student-run newspaper, “home of Intel finalists and cheaters.” According to a school-wide survey, 80% of students admitted to cheating at least once, while only 10% reported that they had ever been caught. What’s more, 72% admitted to copying homework at least once, 56% to copying once a month, and 28% to copying once a week.

Stuyvesant is far from alone. According to a nationwide survey conducted by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, with 40,000 participants from public and private high schools across the country, 59% of students cheated on a test during the past year, and 34% did it at least twice. Cheating is not relegated to prestigious, upper-middle-class schools; it’s a universal phenomenon found not just in schools throughout the nation, but in businesses, governments, and institutions throughout the world.

This includes, of course, good ol’ Radnor High. Lest we forget, our school was embroiled in its own cheating scandal five years ago, though we only managed to get coverage from The Main Line Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer. According to Mr. Rosin, an English teacher, in an interview with the Times, “There was a test that was stolen from a teacher’s computer and was distributed to a minimum of 25 people, and somebody called the night before and said the test had been compromised.” The test was an AP Government midterm, and after the incident was reported, more than two dozen students received suspensions. The incident also led to the creation of our school’s Honor Council, a peer-run, peer-elected body that promotes the Honor Code, which “outlines basic requirements and responsibilities, and is to be used to guide principled conduct in academic performance.”

These measures, while good-intentioned, seem to be only marginally effective at best. With all due respect to the founders and members of the Honor Council, cheating is still an issue that permeates this school. Enter the library during any period and you’ll find students exchanging and copying each other’s homework; books assigned in English class are Sparknoted instead of read; students who take a test in the morning give the answers to those who will take it in the afternoon.

Cheating is, quite frankly, a way of life. The Honor Code, which all students are required to read, defines cheating as “unpermitted collaboration on assigned work, or work submitted by any student, including but not limited to papers, projects, products, lab reports, other reports, and homework.” But according to one student, cheating is “looking off someone else’s test and copying his or her work,” while copying homework, “as long as you use it as a reference,” is fine. Another defined cheating as “taking advantage of another student or other outside resources on an individual assignment,” though that’s not to say that “[the student] had never done it before.” In fact, while composing this article, a student asked if I could share my economics homework; when asked if this was cheating, the student responded, “[n]o, it’s helping out a peer.” None of the students, it should be noted, remember the contents of the Honor Code.

If cheating is so prevalent in our school, how can we possibly begin to combat it? To answer this question we must examine the root cause of why we cheat in the first place. In an editorial published two years before Stuy’s cheating scandal, The Spectator wrote that “[a]cademic dishonesty stems from a profound lack of respect in our school community, as well as a sense of combative division between students and the faculty and administration.” Stuy teachers frequently assigned busywork tasks, such as copying physics problems verbatim from a textbook or a reading quiz that all but asks students to Sparknote the book, instead of work that encourages “deep, conceptual understanding of material.”

The same could be said of our school. One student cited that physics homework “involves simple arithmetic, but takes a much larger amount of time than the amount it helps students grasp the material.” The opportunity cost of completing the assignment on your own, the student adds, “is too high for it to be worth it to many students.” Thus, students turn to one another to complete homework they deem “unnecessary,” an undeniably immoral but inevitable result of classes that devalue actual learning.

Mr. Rosin, the aforementioned English teacher, believes that “a huge factor [in cheating] is panic.” When faced with academic difficulties, some students seek help in appropriate places, such as teachers, the math center, or the writing center. But others “don’t go this way. Fear drives them to an extreme alternative.” In a perfect world, Mr. Rosin continues, students should study “because they are curious and self-motivated to learn.” Unfortunately, today’s American society “has done some foolish things by promoting some elements of status without respect for behavior: if the end justifies the means, then any type of behavior is believed to be okay.” As a result, students who have no moral center, who are “motivated by the ‘ends’: money, fame, power, etc,” will resort to success by any means necessary.

This is, understandably, a bit troubling. Instead of learning how to think independently, we are taught to achieve the highest grades possible, with the implicit message that we should do anything to get to the top. We are told to compete with one another for the highest numbers - be it GPA, SATs, ACTs, or whatever - and if these magical numbers pass a certain threshold, then perhaps we will be accepted into a “top” college, where we will be greeted with even harsher competition and crushing student debt.

Of course, this is not to say that students are blameless victims of a cruel, Darwinian society. Far from it: some of us, no matter how fair the system may be, will find ways to exploit it. And even if the system is unfair, says Mr. Rosin, to throw up your hands and cheat because “everybody does it” is to “[relinquish] personal responsibility.”

Cheating will never be completely eliminated, but students and teachers could at least try to work together to reduce it. Ethics and morality should be given at least the same, if not more, importance as grades and test scores. Teachers should try to reduce busywork and instead assign homework that requires thoughtful, analytical responses, which not only encourages deeper thinking but is also more difficult to copy. Students, especially members of the Honor Council, should encourage one another to refrain from unethical actions, no matter how justifiable they may seem.

Most importantly, we need to develop a new set of values: ones that encourage honesty and self-discipline over “winning” the increasingly competitive academic rat race. When my friends compare their test scores with one another, seeing who did better and who did worse, I often say to them: “It’s not a competition, guys. It’s about fostering a love of learning and knowledge.” Part of me says this as a joke, but another, less cynical part of me wishes that it was true, that we really did care more about learning than a letter on a report card.

They respond: “Stop spewing crap. What’d you get?”


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