Ethics Boundaries Still Appear Fuzzy
Teen Cheating Poll's Results Reflect Pressure, Some Believe

By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 19, 2006

Ben Donovan, a senior at McLean High School, knows that teenagers aren't perfect. Some lie. Some cheat. And some steal. Still, he said, results from a national survey by the Josephson Institute of Ethics paint far too grim a portrait of his generation.

In the 2006 survey of more than 36,000 high school students, 60 percent said they cheated on a test, 82 percent said they lied to their parents about something significant and 28 percent said they stole something from a store. The percentages are slightly lower than those in the 2002 survey and about the same from 2004.

"It's not that cheating and dishonesty doesn't happen, because they do, but I think the idea that my generation is this 'hole in the moral ozone' that they claim us to be is absurd," said Donovan, 18, who is leading the fight against a plan by his school to require that student work be submitted to a commercial database that polices plagiarism. He argues that would infringe on the students' intellectual property rights.

Michael Josephson, founder and president of the California-based institute, which does the survey every two years, believes that the students are influenced by adult behavior.

Ethics scandals involving politicians, chief executives and teachers, he said, have done little to model the importance of integrity.

And sometimes, it's not just students but educators who are the problem, he noted. One example: A principal at a Charles County elementary school was forced to resign this year after officials learned that students had been given answers, extra time and coaching on statewide exams this past spring.

Although the survey responses have "gotten better in some respects," Josephson said, "we have to be much more alarmed about this.

"For better or worse, this is the next generation. It is a staggering indictment on parents and teachers. We can condemn kids, but they're not moral mutants."

Even though more than half of students surveyed said they cheated, 92 percent said they were "satisfied with my own ethics and character." About 74 percent said that "when it comes to doing right, I am better than most people I know."

Stephen Sery, a senior at Springbrook High School in Silver Spring, said he wasn't surprised by the survey's findings. The students' answers reflect "a general decline in morals and ethics as a whole."

"The accepted secular view now is not to condemn anybody but just to say, 'It's okay if they think that's right for them,' " the 17-year-old high school newspaper photographer said in an e-mail.

School administrators acknowledge that cheating has always been an issue on campus, but trying to define the scope of the problem is difficult. Some say students today might be more apt to take shortcuts on assignments because they are stretched too thin, while others may not realize that some of the things they do -- such as sharing homework -- is considered cheating.

"As pressure has increased and as the competition to get into college and to excel has grown, that has led to more stress among students, and then they resort to cheating," said Christopher S. Garran, principal of Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, where students and parents must sign an academic integrity pledge.

Lindsay Deutsch and Danny Fersh, reporters for the Pitch, the school's student newspaper, became so concerned about the problem that they conducted a voluntary survey, in which 74 percent of students admitted to cheating.

Fersh, 16, said that no students said they bought term papers or cheated on major exams but that some said they occasionally cut corners on homework assignments, such as copying homework, or quizzes, when they might ask previous test-takers about the questions.

"When you're up against a deadline, it's 1 a.m. in the morning and you've got five hours of work to do and no way to stay awake, people decide the risk is worth it," he said.

Garran said there have been isolated incidents of cheating at school. He said that in some cases, the advent of the Internet, text messaging and other technology has muddied the definition of what is appropriate. But he added that it is up to teachers and parents to be clear where the boundaries are.

That's part of the reason why, for the first time, teachers at Seneca Valley High School in Germantown will include computer ethics in the annual Senior Ethics Day next month. The goal is to get students thinking about what's appropriate when it comes to online behavior, said Nancy Sommer, who helps coordinate the program.

Steve Miller, who teaches Advanced Placement government and economics at Walter Johnson, said he doesn't think there's been an increase in cheating so much as a change in attitude.

"Students seem to think there's an unspoken agreement about certain types of cheating," he said. "I don't think that's true. I think teachers are appalled by it in almost every case."

Josephson said that the percentage of students who lie, cheat or steal could be higher than the survey found. When asked, 27 percent of the students admitted that they lied on at least one survey question.

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