by Carla Rivera, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
March 30, 2008 - When six Harvard Westlake students were expelled last month for stealing midterm exams at the academically rigorous school, the incident highlighted an old problem facing educators: cheating.
A 2006 national survey found that more than 60% of high school students said they had cheated on a test, and the number of self-admitted cheaters has steadily risen over the years.
Students today can use an array of high-tech gadgetry, challenging schools to keep pace. One click of the Internet opens a world of possibilities and temptations, devious and ingenious, with Web sites devoted to the best cheating practices, and cheating tutorials on YouTube.
One YouTube compilation offers such strategies as taping answers under a tie and designing a T-shirt with a cheat sheet printed on the front in a form that can be overlooked as a logo.
In another, a young man recounts his method of stretching a rubber band over a textbook and writing answers on it. When the rubber band isn't stretched, his writing looks like harmless ink stains. Yet another video explains how to remove a wrapper from a drink bottle and create a duplicate carrying test answers.
Although camera phones with pictures of an answer sheet, and text messages from friends outside the classroom are still the most ubiquitous electronic techniques, many schools have caught on and now ban devices such as cellphones and iPods during tests.
More recent innovations are button cameras, which have a wireless connection to a laptop computer that can then capture stolen test items, and pens capable of scanning a test and sending a video signal to a remote laptop to save the images.
One 17-year-old senior, who attends a Westside high school, said he once turned in an essay for English class that he had taken off a Web site. He said he probably would not do it again because he believes it is now easier to get caught plagiarizing.
The student, who gave only his first name, said he receives good grades and didn't feel the need to cheat now, but admitted that sometimes there is a lot of pressure.
"I don't think there's as much [cheating] going on as people think, but yeah, it's happening," said Christopher, interviewed at the Howard Hughes Center in Westchester. "It's mainly because society puts all this pressure on teenagers, saying you better do good or you won't get to college or you'll be second-rate."
Motivating students to cheat, educators said, are factors such as the pursuit of admission to the 'best' colleges and the fear that not cheating will put them at a disadvantage.
And add to that the stories in the news -- dishonest athletes, politicians and even parents ready to behave unethically, for example, to obtain Hannah Montana tickets.
In the last few weeks, married New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer resigned amid a sex scandal, and the supposed gang memoir of a mixed-race foster child named Margaret B. Jones turned out to have been written by Margaret Seltzer, a white woman from the San Fernando Valley who attended Campbell Hall, a private school in North Hollywood.
"It's a mistake to talk about school cheating without referring to society at large," said Michael Josephson, founder and president of the Los Angeles-based Josephson Institute of Ethics, a nonprofit consulting and training firm. "We need to connect these dots and ask what is our attitude toward cheating, because kids are going to absorb that attitude. . . . And cheating learned in school is habit-forming."
Many educators are searching for their own answers.
David Bryan, head of New Roads School, a private campus in Santa Monica, dealt with a cheating scandal at his own campus a few years ago and recently spoke with a student who had been expelled from Harvard Westlake for the same thing. The student's family was likable and the student contrite, Bryan said. The student ultimately did not apply for admission, but Bryan is unsure whether he would have given the boy a second chance.
"On the one hand, why would I want to bring this kid into our community," said Bryan. "On the other, does that mean that we're supposed to give up on this kid and not give him a second chance?"
Schools increasingly are turning to test-security firms that use computer software capable of picking out anomalies in multiple-choice exams and identifying plagiarized material. Many more, such as New Roads, are also assuming responsibility for helping students to navigate the minefield of moral and ethical behavior with character-building curricula and ethics workshops.
Bryan said he was under no illusion that his campus was free of cheating. It was established in 1995 and has more than 640 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, spread over four campuses. Under the school's policy, students caught cheating the first time must forfeit credit for the assignment or test and do the work over again. A second occurrence will get them expelled.
An ironic subtext of a Society and Ethics class he led one recent morning was that several of those present had been involved in a 2005 cheating incident at New Roads in which about 50 students were briefly suspended for exploiting a computer glitch to get answers to a math assignment.
"I take as a given that young people are going to make bad decisions," said Bryan. "Now is the time to catch them, when the result is not going to be a federal indictment."
There is no doubt that students are conflicted. Bryan posed a series of scenarios to his class, involving shoplifting, stealing, plagiarism, drug use and cheating, and asked: What is more important: friendship or values?
Only one student admitted to cheating in the past year, and many said cheating and theft were wrong under any circumstances. But one, who said that his friends shoplift, said he would discourage them from stealing from a small mom-and-pop store but might encourage taking items from one owned by a big corporation.
Students said there is a temptation to cheat if the consequence of not cheating is a bad grade.
"You're afraid your parents will punish you and take things away from you, and maybe you really, really studied hard to pass," said senior Johnny Winestock, 17.
The most recent survey conducted by the Josephson Institute, in 2006, found virtually no geographical or gender differences in the numbers of students who admit to cheating. Students attending parochial and private schools cheated at a slightly higher rate, as did varsity athletes. And there is anecdotal evidence that top-achieving students also cheat at higher rates, said Josephson.
The number of self-admitted cheaters peaked during a survey in 2004 at 72%, before falling to 61% in 2006. That is about the same number as 1992, when the first survey was conducted. But Josephson said it may be that fewer students are now willing to admit they cheat.
And he dismissed justifications that students are under more pressure than those of past years.
"I'm appalled by that argument," he said, adding that it becomes a silent apology for cheaters. "If that's the case, then don't get mad at Enron, because they were under pressure, and don't get mad at Jason Blair [the former New York Times reporter who was found to have plagiarized and fabricated articles] because he was under pressure."
Many students themselves also discount the idea that they are overwhelmed.
"You have friends who are into a lot of drama," said Alyssa Atain, 16, who attends the private Vistamar School in El Segundo. "There's drugs and alcohol. You're thinking about college, and are you going away and are you strong enough to go away. But I've always pushed myself a lot to do well rather than feeling pressure from the outside. And one thing they do very well at Vistamar is teach you to take pride in who you are as a student."
Richard Perlmutter, whose 16-year-old daughter Ruby attends New Roads, said he was attracted to the school in large part because "the culture here is that beating other people and getting ahead is not the primary objective."
There is an increasing body of opinion among educators that cheating may be an expression of the way schools approach teaching and learning. And as schools and teachers come to face more high-stakes standardized testing, the worse it will become, said Gary J. Niels, who has studied cheating behavior and wrote a 2003 paper on honor codes.
Studies found that when teachers were vague in explaining the relevance and importance of curricula, students perceived the lessons as a waste of time and were more likely to cheat. Fact-driven data that had to be "regurgitated," said Niels, also correlated to higher incidents of cheating.
Niels, who is head of the private Winchester Thurston School in Pittsburgh, also found that honor and integrity codes have little influence if they are purely adult or faculty driven. Although there are practical techniques that can reduce cheating, the entire school community must participate if it is to be prevented.
Even with the ease of access to new technology, the Harvard Westlake students who were caught cheating took the old-fashioned route -- they apparently distracted teachers and stole history and Spanish exams while teachers weren't looking. School officials are dealing with the breach and are holding discussions with students about how to abide by the school's honor code. Six sophomores were expelled and more than a dozen students who allegedly viewed the tests were suspended.