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Why students at prestigious high schools still cheat on exams

Several recent cheating scandals have rocked some of America’s most prestigious high schools.

Some of us might think that academic integrity is sacred in high-performing schools and that students who attend such schools are unlikely to cheat. Since many of these schools are located in affluent neighborhoods, it seems logical to assume that students at these schools would not need to cheat since they have ample resources at their disposal.

But is that actually true?

Academic cheating is prevalent throughout all types of American high schools. Data from one large national study indicated that 51 percent of high school students admit that they have cheated during a test.

Nevertheless, in recent years there has been no shortage of examples of academic cheating occurring in schools with excellent reputations. For example, last year students at prestigious Stuyvesant High School in New York were caught sharing answers to Spanish assignments via a Facebook group. This follows a highly publicized incident that occurred at Stuyvesant several ago, when students were caught cheating on a language examination via text messaging. Many of those students justified their cheating as an acceptable strategy in order to get into a good college and secure a successful career.

Another case occurred during the 2016-17 academic year at Alamo Heights High School in San Antonio. In that incident, 90 freshmen and 38 juniors were accused of copying directly from sources that included a teacher resource guide and Wikipedia. In another case, students from at least five schools on Long Island paid other students between US$500 and $3,600 to take ACT and SAT college entrance examinations for them.

I regularly observed cheating when I taught high school in a suburban district in Florida in the 1980s. I was amazed at the efforts that some students took to cheat. At that time, sophisticated cheaters either created tiny cheat sheets that contained extraordinary amounts of information written in microscopic text, or sneakily peered at their neighbors’ exams.

The methods of cheating have changed much from the days of passing notes during exams. Shutterstock

But the methods for cheating available today are vastly different. For example, students can use smartphones or smartwatches and other gadgets to retrieve information. They can even use tiny earpieces through which information can be sent via Bluetooth technology.

Why do students in highly affluent schools cheat?

No schools are immune to cheating. However, the contexts of high-achieving schools often create a peculiar set of temptations to cheat. First, students from wealthy homes are more likely to have sophisticated communication devices with unlimited data streaming. Second, there is often pressure among students in high-achieving schools to earn good grades and test scores to get accepted to competitive universities. For many of these students, this pressure stems from both peers and parents.

The research that my colleagues and I have conducted over the past 20 years offers insights into why cheating may be prevalent in high-achieving schools. We assess students’ perceptions of whether teachers emphasize grades and test scores or mastery of the content being taught.

Our research has repeatedly demonstrated that students are more likely to cheat in classes that emphasize tests and grades. In contrast, students are less likely to cheat when when they perceive the teacher as emphasizing the importance of truly learning and mastering the content that is being taught. In one study, we followed several hundred students as they made the transition from middle school into high school, and we looked at cheating in math. That study found that, in general, cheating increased as students moved into high school. However, we also found that cheating increased in particular when students transitioned into classrooms where the math teachers did not emphasize mastery but did emphasize grades and test scores. In another study, we found that highly impulsive adolescents, who may be particularly tempted to cheat, are less likely to do so when their teachers emphasize mastery.

Is cheating inevitable in competitive schools?

Cheating is not inevitable. Our research offers practical suggestions for lessening the temptation to cheat. And these suggestions won’t cost a lot, either.

If students have to demonstrate mastery through a traditional sit-down, closed book exam, then students may be able to cheat to succeed on the exam. However, if teachers also utilize other types of assessments in which students must apply what they have learned through projects, a presentation or solving novel problems, then cheating is less likely to work.

As new technologies emerge, the problem of cheating will only worsen. Be that as it may, teachers and school leaders can work together to change a culture of cheating into a culture that emphasizes mastery.

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