Scamtron: A Look at Ethics and Motivations Behind Cheating at Tam


By Jordan Blackburn and Cam Vernali

For Alice, a junior girl who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, her typical math class begins with correcting the homework that was due that day. This time is provided to give students a chance to see where they made errors and then they have until the following class period to fix their mistakes. However, according to Alice, a lot of students use this time to copy homework from others.
“[Students copy] literally, in class, in front of their teachers, who are completely oblivious to the process,” Alice said. “There’s countless Facebook groups of respective classes, particularly AP classes, [that exist] as forums to share work, which is definitely sometimes helpful. I’d say that the most common process of sharing work, especially homework, is having little societies of friends in classes. A lot of juniors and seniors, and freshmen and sophomores, have classes with their friends or other people that they know and that makes it super easy to just text a friend, ask for homework, get a picture of the homework, copy it down, if not word for word, recognizably close. I’d say that’s the most common practice.”
Cheating has been present at Tam since the first students roamed the halls, and it exists in many different forms. To the age-old question “Are your grades more important than your morals?” many students interviewed answered yes. The real question isn’t whether or not students are cheating but why they are.
Some cheating may simply be motivated by boredom. “Especially when homework’s busywork, especially when it’s enforcing certain material, and you already know the material. It can be kind of boring in a way, [and] unimportant,” junior Arthur Antonio said. “I don’t think it’s morally wrong to cheat on that. Plagiarizing essays, that’s like wrong. It’s not your work.”
In 2010, The Josephson Institute Center for Youth Ethics surveyed 43,000 high school students, in the United States, in public and private schools and found that 59 percent of high school students admitted cheating on a test during the last year. Another 34 percent self-reported cheating more than two times, and one out of three high school students admitted that they used the Internet to plagiarize an assignment.
“[Cheating] is very common… pretty much everyone I know, if there is an opportunity to cheat, they will do so,” said Suzy, a junior girl who also spoke on the condition of anonymity.
However, not all Tam students agree that cheating is necessary or morally acceptable. Justine Rutter, a senior who is enrolled in several AP and honors classes at Tam, says that she’s never cheated.
“I think it’s completely morally wrong,” Rutter said. “Because if somebody spent their time and worked hard to learn the material, and then somebody else tries to exploit that learning, then it’s wrong. I think that cheating on homework is a big problem. I wouldn’t say that cheating on tests is as big of a problem, but I know a lot of people who didn’t do their homework for the night and then they’re like ‘I wanna see your homework.’”
She says that despite the workload, she always manages to finish her work. “It kind of comes in waves,” Rutter said. “There’s waves where I have a lot of work, and it feels that I can’t finish it, but I always somehow do finish it.”
According to the Educational Testing Service, which describes itself as the world’s largest non-profit “educational, testing and assessment association,” about 20 percent of college students admitted to cheating in high school during the 1940s. Today, between 75 and 98 percent of college students surveyed report having cheated in high school, depending on the year.
When asked why students cheat, students and teachers at Tam cite too much homework and too little time. “Mostly I think it’s probably stressed and overbooked students. Obviously it’s sometimes just to take the easy way out, but I think for the most [part] it’s usually people trying to check all the boxes that they need to check in ‘X’ amount of time,” science teacher Jennifer Brown said.
English teacher Michael Krause agreed. “Students are balancing a lot of pressure. And they’re trying to serve a lot of masters, and I would hope they wouldn’t cheat, but it’s not a foreign idea as to why they do it,” Krause said. “I don’t see cheating as a way of sticking it to the man. It stems from a place of stress in times of desperation.”
Students, too, cited stress as a key motives behind cheating. “I feel like it’s in the moment, like I don’t think it’s like, pre, like I’m gonna cheat on this test. It’s more like people get there and like ‘oh [crap] I don’t know what’s on this test, I’m gonna look at my neighbor,’” junior Chris Begler said.
Teachers interviewed noted the hectic lives of teenagers. “A lot of them are stressed and doing sports and drama and don’t have time for the homework,” math teacher Curt Gebhard said. “They’re under pressure and they don’t really care about the material, per se, especially in math. If they cared about the material and learning it, they’d do it [themselves].”
Students also said that a large motivator to cheat is the high standards to get good grades and test scores. “There’s so much pressure put on us to succeed, and sometimes it’s just beyond what we’re able to do,” senior Taylor Bratton said. “Because we’re so bogged down with all the work that we have to do, sometimes it seems like [cheating is] the only option to get an A.”
Some students went so far as to say they cheat on principle. “I don’t go out of my way to cheat, but we have an educational system that prioritizes grades above learning and I don’t see why I shouldn’t do the same, so if the opportunity presents itself, then I will,” Suzy said. “I don’t choose cheating over learning the material, but I will double check answers… I always study. Cheating isn’t a substitute for that, it’s a safety net.”
Tam’s academic honesty policy defines cheating as copying homework/test answers, allowing others to view your homework, using notes during a test, being involved in unauthorized communication during a test, plagiarism (either directly or with only minor editing), submission of work for one class that has already been accepted for credit in another class or school, revealing test information, submitting work done by someone else, or unauthorized use of translation program in world languages.
“I have a big concern with the policy,” principal Julie Synyard said. “[If someone cheats we are] working with individual students [and] working with individual teachers in which the infraction occurred and then kind of sitting down and trying to figure out what’s the best way to deal with the issue. So, some of the things we’ve done were a little bit creative, a little deviation from the policy. [We] try to think, ‘What’s my absolute purpose?”
Synyard said that she doesn’t focus only on the discipline aspect. “I really want the student to learn the material, not get out of doing it. That’s what typically happens [when a student is caught],” she said.
Within the policy, consequences for academic dishonesty include three incident plans. The first incident includes a zero grade on submitted work, notification of the assistant principal, counselor and parent/guardian, and signing a written contract not to cheat. After the second incident, there is a zero grade on submitted work, a conference with the assistant principal, teacher, parent or guardian and a two-day school suspension. When a student is caught cheating three times, they receive a 3-day school suspension and semester failure in the class in which cheating occurs, as well as referral to School Attendance Review Board (SARB). This information is made available to parents and students on both the school website and in the student planners.
Many teachers adhere to the school academic honesty policy. “They are supposed to get a 0 on the assignment and then have to sign for academic dishonesty,” Gebhard said.
Some teachers see homework more as a collaborative assignment. “For me, homework is building knowledge, and your test/quiz/project is a place to demonstrate your knowledge,” science teacher John Ginsburg said. “And so if the building happens with other people I don’t really think that’s the end of the world, but that’s a personal choice that I’ve made as a teacher.”
Different class structures may place different amounts of emphasis on homework, meaning that teachers must address this type of cheating based on their personal philosophy. “The policy that I have is that if I see them cheating on homework, I take it and they get a zero,” Brown said. “However, that doesn’t really make as much of a difference anymore with standards-based grading because they are required to know and understand the content. If [the students] get it, then they get it; if they are just copying someone’s work, it’s not really going to mean anything anymore,” Brown said.
According to some students, cheating on homework is most commonly done with classes like science and math, where there is less room for creative, personal answers because many assignments require students getting information in the same process or from the same website or textbook to be correct. “It’s the difference of ideas and opinions versus factual answers,” junior Chris Begler said.
Statistics show that cheating has increased over recent years. According to teachers, there are several possible reasons for this rise in cheating. Some feel the increase is due to the lack of consequence. “I think it’s increased because it doesn’t seem like the school has a policy [to] enforce it,” Gebhard said.
When cheating in class occurs, some teachers do take steps to discourage further cheating. Efforts may include modifying the way tests are taken, such as making students sit with their backs to the teacher so they are unable to hide behind their desks, checking hands for writing before tests, and making different versions of the same test.
“For me, I’ve been seeing [cheating] less over the past two or three years,” Krause said. “When I saw it as a very common occurrence, it really forced me to come up with assignments that are very idiosyncratic to what I’m doing in class.”
Even if teachers are figuring out ways to thwart more traditional methods of cheating, technology and the Internet continue to open up new avenues by which students can cheat, from sending a friend a picture of an assignment to copying and taking the answers from sites such as Yahoo Answers.
Cheating with technology, most commonly student cell phones, has been occurring for years now. A national poll conducted by the Benenson Strategy Group found that more than 35 percent of teens admitted to cheating with cell phones and the Internet.
Brown agrees that cell phones have made cheating easier for students. “I know that people take pictures of their homework or someone else’s homework and send it to someone else and they copy it down, so I think that cheating on homework has increased,” Brown said.
Ginsburg agreed with Brown about the effect of smart phones on cheating. “I think technology has given [students] a new tool, so yes, I would say that smart phones have made it easier to cheat and harder for teachers to see people cheating,” Ginsburg said.
An ABC News poll from 2006 reported that “among 12 to 14-year-olds, 23 percent admit cheating; that rises to 36 percent of kids age 15 to 17, and, as noted, peaks at 43 percent of those age 16 to 17.”
Alice says she thinks that cheating increases junior and senior year. “With people taking harder classes, and especially with people open to the AP’s,” Alice said, “a lot of people [are] overdoing themselves [with] their schedule. [Because of that,] a lot of people are inclined to copy homework to get the grades that are such a big deal in today’s society compared to freshman and sophomore year when [they don’t matter as much].”
Few students interviewed felt cheating in high school was against their morals. “I honestly think that cheating is less a premeditated act of immorality as adults seem to think it is, and more of a decision made out of opportunity, so I don’t think it’s really a behavior that would exist outside a school environment,” Suzy said.
According to however, cheaters are “three times more likely to lie to a customer, three times more likely to inflate an insurance claim, twice as likely to lie or deceive their boss, 1.5 times more likely to cheat on a spouse and 1.5 times more likely to cheat on taxes.”
Some teachers at Tam are worried about these long-term consequences. “My concern is that when and if students move onto college, if they are caught cheating, especially on a test or quiz or an assessment, [the college officials] are not forgiving at all,” said Brown. “It would be better to learn those lessons here than in college.”
Ultimately, despite the risks and long term consequences, students continue to cheat. Alice says that with finals coming up, her cheating has increased. “Before finals, since I’m really behind in class, more than I should be. I’d say right now, in two of my classes, I’m copying more work than I’m doing.”