It's Exam Time and That Means It's Cheating Season Again

BlogHer Original Post

Test TakingMany moons ago, as I preparing for finals in college, I met a friend for a last minute cram session. I was pretty well prepared, but he said he needed help. He brought copies of what he explained were “last year’s test.” Using old exams was not uncommon practice in my classes. Professors even occasionally left hard copies in the library for review (there was no on-line then). So, bringing a test from which to study was no surprise. What was a surprise was that the exam we studied from ended up being the exam we took just two hours later.

Inadvertently, I had become a cheater. I had access in advance to the exam and ended up getting an A on the test. Would I have gotten an A anyway? I’ll never know. What I do know is that I spent weeks, months, and now, years brooding over the situation my “friend” put me in and over the fact that, in the end, I did nothing. I didn’t tell the professor, I didn’t confront my friend. I simply stewed.

These moral moments, I believe, are the building blocks of our humanity. We grow and learn and evolve not just from those times we “win” but also from those times we “fail.” I failed myself back then and learned a lesson about who I was and who I wanted to be. Being a cheater was not one of them.

Cheating, back in the day, seemed rare. Sure you heard of students sharing homework answers but actual cheating on tests? That was for losers.

Now, we are told, cheating is endemic. One report indicated that as many as 86 percent of high school students admitted to cheating. Another said the number is as high at 95 percent. It used to be that the cheaters were the kids who struggled to get by. Kids like my friend who wasn’t a particularly good student. However, according to recent research, it is now our best and brightest who are cheating their way into college.

As the mother of three teenage children, children whom I hope will one day graduate from high school and attend college, I worry about the current dynamic they are facing. The race to nowhere has pushed our children into a constant moral dilemma. If they don’t cheat, will they be at a disadvantage to their peers who do? If they do cheat, what does that say about who they are?

We parents are deeply naive on this issue. I remember when my oldest was a freshman, I attended a meeting for other parents of freshman. I asked advice on how to guide my son. He had seen one of his classmates cheating on a science test. Turns out the boy had written answers on the inside brim of his baseball cap. My son didn’t know if he should turn in his classmate or let it go. When I shared my son’s situation, the parents were aghast. Couldn’t be! Must be an exception! “Must be,” I said, shaking my head in dismay at their denials.

Being somewhat of a Luddite, I was unaware of some of the ways our children can beat the system. “E-Cheating” has become the catch-word for the use of technology to gain an undue advantage. Recently, a student at a high school in a town nearby went online and found the site his science teacher used to make tests. (Am I the only one who sees the irony in this? If the teacher had actually taken the time to create his own test, this wouldn’t have been a problem. But I digress.)

The student downloaded the problems and the solutions into his graphing calculator. During the test he simply had to hit one button and all the answers magically appeared. He was only caught when he provided solutions the teacher hadn’t even taught yet.

With the rise of the Internet, students are able to "cut and paste" in ways never before possible. Insufficient approbation can quickly become plagiarism. Programs such as Turn It In have become all the rage in high schools across the land. The online site checks students papers against a portfolio of 90,000 journals and more than 150 million other papers to confirm that no lifting without attribution has occurred. Students are required to submit their papers to the site for review—if they get a match, they are deemed cheating. 

By imposing this anti-cheating system on our children, it implies they would cheat if they could cheat. I wonder if this doesn’t then engender the idea that “since everyone is doing it, maybe I should, too.” Given the statistics above, that attitude may not be so out of touch. 

But the statistics might well be flawed. Confusion abounds amongst students about what is actually cheating. I asked my kids. They were able to recite the obvious, but when it came to homework, suddenly the answers were not so confident. If students collaborate on homework using a Google Doc to share answers, is that cheating? 

The rise of new technology may give students new avenues for cheating, but it also introduces those gray areas that can be so confusing. For example, when a group of students at University of Central Florida studied together by taking old exams from the Internet to prep for an upcoming final, they did know they would be cheating. Their teacher recycled said exams and then accused the students of malfeasance. The university later apologized to the class, saying that new technology means greater collaboration and greater potential for inadvertent cheating.

Much has been said about why cheating is on the rise: the decline of our moral society, the focus on individual success rather than communal success, the globalization that makes the world flatter and therefore more competitive, the pressure to get ahead at all costs, and so on. Much of this doesn’t matter to our children today. Right now they are trying to figure out how they can get through finals so they can begin their summer vacation (that is before they are off to their camps and their enrichment classes and their internships all intended to help them get into college).

Just like we have “The Talk” about sex and drugs, we parents also need to have the talk about cheating and morality and that gray line between right and wrong. We do this so that when they face that moral moment, they will have the tools and the confidence to behave in a way they won’t regret in the years to come.

To help you have "The Talk," check out these sources:

  • Psychology Today offers insight into why adolescents cheat.
  • Educational Testing Service provides much information including an academic cheating fact sheet.
  • This website is from a student who advocates for cheating and offers students various cheating techniques. I sure learned a lot!

Our BlogHers have much to say on the topic as well. Educator and BlogHer Leslie Madison Brooks shares insight into the issue from a teacher’s perspective. Heligirl writes about her experience viewing the film Race To Nowhere and what it means for our children. BlogHer Shannon LC Cate writes about the impact of No Child Left Behind on our public schools.


Gloria Steinem once said, "The first problem for all of us, women and men, is not to learn but to unlearn." I am working on unlearning each and every day. How about you? Lisen www.prismwork.com

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