Cheating 'Rampant' in American High Schools

A large banner hangs above the blackboard in Denise Brown's classroom: "On my honor as a citizen, I have neither given nor received help on this assignment, nor have I witnessed such activity," it says. 

Don't believe it. 

"Cheating is rampant — it's everywhere," said Brown, a 32-year veteran who teaches Latin and study skills at Centreville High School. 

Students of all stripes agree. 

"On every little test, somebody is cheating," said senior Ashley Stewart, 17. 

Experts call it one of education's biggest dilemmas. 

A Princeton University study last year found that 74 percent of high school students had cheated or plagiarized during the prior year. 

In another poll, 80 percent of top high school students admitted to cheating during their academic careers, the highest percentage since the "Who's Who Among American High School Students" survey began 29 years ago. In the survey, 95 percent of cheaters said they had never been caught. 

Teachers say students are increasingly tempted to cheat because of growing workloads, pressure to get good grades and the call of jobs and extracurricular activities. They also say parents too often look the other way. 

Students say cheating occurs mostly in small, subtle ways, such as peeking at a neighbor's test paper or asking a friend for answers. 

The Internet also has brought point-and-click convenience to cheating, making it as easy as shopping for an Alicia Keys CD. What many see as a helpful resource for honest students, others see as a vehicle for those unwilling to do their own work. 

Brown and colleagues said the best students seem to cheat the most. She said she told her Advanced Placement Latin class not to rely on those gee-whiz Internet translation sites where texts can instantly be translated from English to Latin, French, Spanish, etc. — or vice versa. 

Two days after she urged students not to hand in Internet translations, which are clumsy and inaccurate, they trickled in. 

"Kids tell me it's because they're crunched for time," she said. But teachers said parents haven't helped students resist such temptations, often fighting schools — lawyers in tow — when students are accused of cheating. 

Many teachers say lax attitudes toward honesty is at the heart of the matter. They cite Enron's secret partnerships, Olympics skating judges' secret deals, plagiarizing historians, Bill Clinton's marital infidelities — even the Little League pitcher who was older than claimed. 

"It's easier and easier to say, 'Well, honesty is for fools,'" said Michael Josephson, who developed the popular "Character Counts!" program used in thousands of schools. 

Even President Bush is getting involved, championing character education. In the long-range strategic plan for the Education Department, Bush sets a modest goal of reducing the percentage of high-schoolers who believe cheating occurs from 40 percent to 35 percent by 2007. 

Cheating made headlines last December, when the Piper, Kan., school board told biology teacher Christine Pelton to reduce the punishments of 28 students she accused of plagiarizing reports. Instead, Pelton resigned. 

One Piper parent said her daughter did not plagiarize — the girl was just unsure how much she needed to rewrite research material, she said. 

Centreville senior Brett Bonnema, 17, said plagiarism "was never explained to me" until this year. 

Bonnema also said teachers will sometimes go easy on cheaters because they "don't want to get you in trouble." 

Sophomore Dara Taheri, 15, said the common punishments for cheating on a test — a zero, plus the possibility of suspension — are "pretty much a slap on the wrist." 

But the school can also remove a student from the National Honor Society and require a shift on a 5:30 a.m. cleanup crew. 

Josephson said lax punishments and laziness — including teachers who give the same tests class after class, year after year — help keep cheating alive in most schools. 

"No school will say they're encouraging cheating, but I just have to look at their procedures," he said. 

Centreville principal Pamela Latt recalls that she learned just before commencement ceremonies a few years ago that a student's Spanish essay was plagiarized. The student had already been accepted to college, but Latt contacted administrators and encouraged them to investigate. The college eventually withdrew its offer. 

"We're doing the kids a favor," Latt said. "We're doing the families a favor. Not everybody thinks so at the time."