Class Struggle

A crackdown on cheating would benefit all

By Jay Mathews
Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Sept. 1 edition of Education Week had a provocative commentary, "All my favorite students cheat," by high school teacher Christopher L. Doyle. He and I agree that cheating is rife, but we don't agree on what causes that. He thinks students are protecting themselves against widespread insecurity in a declining America. I think the larger problem is that teachers so love and trust their students that the teachers become easy marks.

America used to be tough on cheaters. Before World War II, miscreants could be suspended, expelled or caned. Schools went soft in the 1960s, and although we have little data, cheating probably increased. In a 1995 survey by "Who's Who Among American High School Students," 76 percent of high-schoolers with at least B averages said they had cheated at least once. In suburban, upper-middle-class, high-achieving schools, such as the place Doyle still teaches or many Washington area schools, cheating is still common.

Some students want their schools to do something about it. In the mid-1990s, I served on a citizen-teacher-student governance committee at Scarsdale High School in Westchester County, N.Y. When our chairman asked whether anyone had any personal complaints about the school, our two student members raised a topic we had never addressed: cheating. Non-cheating students, they said, felt abused by lax enforcement. They blamed teachers for not proctoring their own exams. Some teachers, they said, left the room for the hour to sip coffee in the teachers lounge.

These were not state tests or the SAT, which require proctoring, but the regular course exams that would determine students' report card grades. The Scarsdale assistant principal told me many teachers assumed their students would never cheat because they were such great kids.

Such deep belief in the inner goodness of American teens is not easily challenged. Erich Martel, a history teacher at Wilson High School in the District, was recently involuntarily transferred to another school in part because he used anti-cheating devices such as printing tests with fonts too small to be read from the next desk. His principal complained he was "creating an expectation that students will cheat" and ought to have more faith in the character of his pupils.

Schools here and throughout the country have struggled for years with the issue but made little progress. Attitudes differ on what constitutes cheating. In one survey of students at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill., 97 percent said looking at another student's exam was wrong. Only 46 percent, however, had the same view about asking someone in an earlier class what was on the test. Teachers I know encourage team projects, so their students ask why they can't share their homework results. Multiple-choice tests are easier to cheat on, but they take less time to grade than essay exams. Essays are more difficult to copy.

Some surveys suggest pressure to get admitted to a favorite college can cause cheating, but so can adolescent sloth. One teacher at a New York school I visited said how proud she was that her students never took those illegal shortcuts. Hearing that, a student journalist quickly found two good students who had cheated on each of the teacher's last three exams. The reporter asked them why. "It was just easier," one said.

Despite the cheating, learning continues. Students have to know something to do well on heavily proctored exams, such as the SAT or Advanced Placement tests. Perhaps if we took cheating more seriously on exams that affect high school grades, our students would not cheat and would have more respect for us.

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