Shortcut to success?
Morality of cheating questioned as trend escalates
April 25, 2014
Nuclear weapons and cheating.
Now that’s a scary idea.
In mid January this year, nearly one fifth of the Air Force’s nuclear weapons corps was suspended for allegations of cheating on monthly exams. The corps is trained to be ready to deploy nuclear weapons at a moment’s notice from the President.
Trainees and officers involved in the cheating scandal shared answers to and gave hints for the exams, but there are claims the cheating is “systematic,” when the required passing rate is 90 percent and promotions demand a perfect score. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told reporters the significance of perfection has created a climate of fear and stress at the base.
Most high school students do not plan on joining the military, but stress is a factor in every instance of cheating, from a vocabulary quiz to a nuclear weapons exam. Academic dishonesty is the norm among students, but faculty are trying change perspectives while raising grades.
CULTURE OF CHEATING
Everyone, even cheaters themselves, casts blame onto different factors when asked why students cheat, but they all agree the practice has invaded every class, every institution.
“The definition of cheating is so all-encompassing that everyone immediately concludes one of two things: one, the rules concerning cheating are not strictly enforced or two, I have already cheated many times before and have only been lucky to have not been caught,” junior Jonathan Smith* said.
According to Smith, this interpretation of the rules looks bad for teachers, who appear either up-tight or further encourage pro-cheating viewpoints through loose authority over cheaters in their classroom.
“This is bad for everyone,” Smith said. “Also, students are regularly rewarded for loosely cheating by increased grades and then can be harshly punished for something that they saw as both personally morally permissible, and legally permissible under some teachers. This decreases teacher-student trust, and, perhaps worst of all, teaches us that the best way to avoid punishment is to lie.”
Besides the double standards, some students view cheating on homework as a sort of protest against mundane assignments.
“We have much more homework, and a lot of it is just stupid, like it doesn’t help you,” junior Katya Irwin said. “It’s homework that is repetitive and covers non-useful things. So I feel like a lot of students who are normally against cheating feel more comfortable because they’re like, yeah, I already know how to do this, this is pointless.”
Another factor, more widely recognized, is the competitive culture of the school. Driven by a desire for a high GPA, more extracurriculars, their own inner demons and the high achievers around them, students stick to the status quo of their peers.
“To take seven AP classes is insane and usually not recommended, yet some students must take than many APs to be the top of the school,” junior Sophia Williams* said. “To get all As in those classes is even harder, and if you’re not a genius, cheating is the easy street, and you will be able to get that A, regardless of morals.”
Experts and studies blame peer pressure and societal norms for the motivation behind teenagers’ actions, but many students face severe consequences at home if they do not perform at the top of the class.
“For the longest time, I hated people who cheat because it obviously wasn’t fair, but I can understand where they are coming from,” Williams said. “There’s a tremendous pressure for success and prestige, especially from parents. I know parents that still beat their kids when they don’t do well on a test, or they call their children degrading names, and as from my personal experience, my parents would make it sound like someone that is not successful academically, is a complete failure.”
All these factors – parents, peer pressure, conflicting consequences, even laziness – combine to form an idea in the minds of many students that cheating is acceptable and necessary.
New concerns about the widespread academic dishonesty both on and off campus has alarmed teachers and administrators.
“There’s always incidents,” Physics teacher Shawn Richard said. “But I will say I have had to give more zeros this year for cheating than I have in the last three years combined, and I’m sure for as much as I catch, there’s another 50 percent that I don’t catch.”
A group of volunteer teachers and administrators has come together to form an academic dishonesty task force. The end-goal of the task force is to create a “comprehensive definition” of cheating and its consequences across departments and classes, and form an honor code based upon that that students will sign before beginning every major assignment.
“There have been some recent incidents of cheating that were big enough, or widespread enough, that the principals thought that we need to do something to try to change the culture,” AP English Language teacher Alyssa Bruder said. “We’re in the beginning stages of it, so I’m not sure when that would happen, but each time we’ve met, we’ve said we want to get feedback from kids so it’s not just: ‘here’s what it’s going to be and you’ve got no say in it.’”
Despite her position on the task force, Bruder’s sympathy for students who are academically dishonest extends farther than others’.
“I hate that it happens, but considering how much pressure we put on ‘you need to make these grades, this GPA, to get into this college,’ it’s understandable,” Bruder said. “The reason I want to be on the team is so that it’s not just about a ‘gotcha’ situation. It’s about what we can do as teachers so that students feel prepared enough that they don’t need to cheat.”
Members of the task force are considering honor codes implemented by colleges and certain Cinco Ranch academic departments to create a solid school-wide policy.
“Hopefully, it’ll be one of those things where as you do your quiz or your test or you write your timed writing, you have to sign that honor code, as sort of a reminder: ‘hey, do the right thing’,” Bruder said. “‘Rely on yourself because you can do this’.”
MORE THAN JUST A ZERO
Possibly more than anyone else involved, teachers are affected by cheating emotionally and though their ability to teach efficiently.
According to teachers, tests are not just a way to track students’ achievements, they are a way to show the teacher how well they are doing their job, too. When students are dishonest with their answers on tests and exams, teachers are unable to evaluate their own teaching ability and do not know what to go over a second time, leaving both students and teachers in the dark about the one purpose of school: learning.
“The test at the end of it is to see how well have I done and how well have you done in the learning process,” Richard said. “If you cheated, I assume that you learned nothing, and the instrument that I used is completely invalid. So there’s no way for me to find out if we need to go back and review something, or if something wasn’t very clear, or maybe we did a great job on that unit, and now you’re super great at it and don’t need any review. It’s hard to say what’s going on if the test grade is invalid.”
Teachers’ confidence is at stake when they discover a student has received help on a test, no doubt because their entire career is based on helping others learn, and cheating sends the message that their mission has failed.
“Every time I have a student cheat, everyone around me – all the adults, the other teachers, friends of mine – tells me the same thing: don’t take it personally,” Richard said. “And I take it personally every time. Because if a student has to go to cheat it tells me maybe I didn’t do a good enough job; that the student hasn’t learned it to such an extent that they had to cheat on it to figure it out, to get the answer.”
The Internet has made everyone’s’ lives easier. Except teachers’.
“Even five years ago, teachers could work under the assumption that a test bank would be reasonably secure,” Richard said. “For decades, teachers have been using test banks because the questions are well-formed, they’re on the right difficulty and they can be sure that their answer is right.”
Today, most text banks can be found with a quick, well worded Google search and a Quizlet account, making it difficult for teachers to write original test questions. Adding to the problem is the presumption that teachers must allow students to take their tests home as study materials, forcing them to change their tests each year, which can take as long as eight hours.
Smith believes that one cause of the cheating epidemic is some teachers’ refusal to hand out old exams as study material, prompting students to search for such materials online. When the study guides they find end up being test questions and answers used in their class, administration blames the student.
“This not only allows certain students to gain an unfair advantage by looking at these documents, but leads to the schools denial of the student in using online resources,” Smith said. “Of course this could be fixed if the teachers remade the keys.”
There are so many factors that could lead a student to cheat, and teachers are trying to eliminate or subdue those factors, but it always comes down to the individual, Bruder said.
“Ultimately, it does come down to somebody sitting there, taking the test, writing the paper, thinking, ‘Am I going to do this or not?’”
*Name changed to protect privacy