It used to be simple: Students stowed crib notes on a piece of paper in a shoe, scrawled answers on their arm, or looked over the shoulder of the smart person nearby. The idea was to get good grades without staying up all night studying.
Today, while many of the same practices persist, cheating in American schools has become far more sophisticated - and the stakes far higher. In an era of standardized testing, everything from teachers' pay to principals' jobs is linked to student performance - intensifying the pressure to "do anything" for high scores.
With so much riding on that moment when a student fills in ovals with a No. 2 pencil, some see the potential for an ethical crisis in US schools over cheating.
Indeed, evidence is mounting that cheating - by both educators and students - is happening more and more. Last week, investigators in New York accused dozens of the city's teachers and principals with cheating on standardized tests.
While the scale of the cheating here made national headlines, it's hardly an isolated case. Over the past few years, scattered reports of cheating by educators have surfaced in a number of states, including Connecticut, Virginia, Arizona, Maryland, and Texas.
"It becomes a case of gun-at-the-head politics," says Joseph Rezulli, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Connecticut in Storrs and a critic of high-stakes tests. "These scores have become the only exchangeable currency in education ... so people are starting to cheat. If my job or my promotion or my salary or my recognition as a good principal is on the line - they think, 'Why not?' "
Why not? The question signals a growing complacency toward cheating, not only among some educators, but among students as well. In a much-cited survey in last year's "Who's Who Among American High School Students," 80 percent of the country's best students said they cheated to get to the top of their class (although not necessarily on a standardized test). And more than half "didn't think cheating was a big deal."
Students who cheat find ways to rationalize their cheating to make it seem "no big deal," found another extensive survey by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), the company that administers standardized tests such as the SAT and GRE. Many students said cheating was a "victimless crime," or that it made up for unfair tests or lack of opportunity.
"Students feel justified in what they are doing," said Donald McCabe, president of Center for Academic Integrity in Durham, N.C. "They are cheating because they see others cheating, and they think they are being unfairly disadvantaged. The only way many of them feel they can stay in the game, to get into the right school, is to cheat as well."
Competition for college
Indeed, like teachers with their jobs on the line, students feel an unprecedented pressure to do well on standardized tests and get good grades. Applying to college, and getting into the "good schools," has become an intensely competitive process, with a lot at stake. So far, it appears that "character education" - a curriculum designed to reinforce the values of citizenship and personal integrity - is not much of a match for students who confront today's academic pressures.
What is most startling about the recent wave of cheating, say many observers, is the types of students doing the cheating. Whereas in the past students worried about failing would resort to crib notes, now even the best and brightest are trying to get an edge, like an athlete taking steroids.
Moreover, today's students and teachers operate in a swashbuckling economic era when the overarching message can be read as "quick gain, little pain." As a result, long hours of study and gradual improvement in student scores may no longer be as highly valued as in earlier generations.
Indeed, Thomas Rocklin, director of the Center for Teaching at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, is quick to point out that cheating in school reflects a trend in society.
The percentage of high schoolers who say they cheat, he points out, is comparable to surveys of adults that show 90 percent admitting to telling a lie, for instance, or violating traffic laws.
"I don't want to say cheating isn't bad," Mr. Rocklin says. "But it's not just a student problem and it's not just a school problem. The simple fix is not to throw away the standardized test. Schools function because of the faith society places in them, and that faith has to be grounded in things that are credible."
On top of it all, cheating has become so high-tech and sophisticated that would-be cheaters may feel they stand little risk of being found out.
It goes far beyond simply buying a term paper on the Internet. Among Y2K cheating wonders are pagers and Palm Pilots with infrared technology that can beam messages (and test answers) across the room. E-mail and cellular phones have made communicating between class much easier, as well, bringing the copying of homework to a new level. There have also been instances of students hacking into school records to change their grades.
The pressure aside, some feel cheating no longer carries the social stigma it used to - especially among students themselves. Researchers at ETS have found this complacency to be one of the primary reasons cheating has increased over the years.
Organizations such as ETS are beginning public-awareness campaigns aimed at preventing cheating. ETS has partnered with Ad Council to sponsor a Web site, www.nocheating.org, to discourage academic cheating.
*Staff writer Mark Clayton contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society