Why are More Students Cheating? The Answer is Simple

Reading educational news is always depressing because most of the issues plaguing our schools are systemic and any resolution will require massive overhauls of not only our K-12 public schooling, but also a house cleaning of educational and social policies. But sometimes I read about problems for which there is a simple (albeit not easily implemented) solution. The solution is so simple, that when I asked young children (8 and 9 years old) what they would do about it, they gave a quick and confident response. And what’s more, their response was the same response thousands of degree-carrying educators, politicians, and researchers give: Get rid of the emphasis placed on standardized testing.

In the past 21 days alone, there have been three news-making stories about student cheating:

1)      Stuyvesant High School in NYC—more than 50 students allegedly cheated on the end of year exams in June  I’d Cheat Too if My High School was Named That

2)      Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, CO—78 cadets are suspected of cheating on an online calculus exam.  Don’t Worry about War; Calculus Can be the Death of You

3)      Harvard in Cambridge, MA—the co-captains of the basketball are implicated in a cheating scandal that could involve dozens of athletes.   I am so NOT surprised. Everyone knows REAL Ivy is GREEN!

(so the titles I gave these links are admittedly all me, but still click them for the stories)

What’s notable is that these are elite institutions of learning. The cost of attendance is high (not just financial cost, but emotional as well), but completely worth the prestige and notoriety these names carry on a transcript, resume, or curriculum vitae. The professional connections made at any of these schools are enough to land you summer internships, letters of reference, and to rush your name to the top of the interview pile.

But why are presumably bright students cheating? The admittance requirements for AFA and Harvard are very stringent, and graduates of Stuyvesant often attend top 10 colleges. These students don’t resemble what the general public believes cheaters to look like. These kids generally (note: generally) are from financially sound families, are active in their community, are leaders in school organizations, are enrolled in rigorous courses, have sound friend groups…wait. Go back one. These kids are enrolled in rigorous courses. Hmmm…

Are the classes too rigorous? Are the students unable to master the material in the allotted time so they resort to cheating? No. I don’t think so. Cheating is nothing new. I would be shocked to meet an adult who never cheated (and yes, copying a friend’s homework counts) on a school assignment. So why the big hoopla?

Because now, cheating in school is like the mob: organized crime. Read the stories. This isn’t a ruckus about one or two kids cheating. This is about dozens of kids cheating together. Our nation’s brightest are putting their genius to work. They are developing and executing complex strategies to maintain their high GPA. This takes a level of hypothetical reasoning and problem-solving that adults often underestimate in children. But as a developmental psychologist, I know better. Actually, I am not surprised, but rather impressed. We worry so much about teaching our students to ‘think critically’ and ‘think before they act’. Well they are doing just that. Happy now? *glares*

As an educational psychologist, I also know why student cheating is more common and more mob-like.

It’s really not that difficult to follow the cheating train of logic. I’d bet money there is a high correlation between college admittance/job attainment requirements and level of cheating. In other words, we’ve created a school-to-work infrastructure that requires too much to be the best. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we should lower our standards. I am saying that we should tell our children to do their best, not be the best.

Because to be the best you have to be perfect at everything. You have to have great grades received in the most rigorous courses, high standardized test scores, a stellar record of community engagement, a long list of extracurriculars, letters of recommendation from the most notable professors and community leaders, and to top it off, you better have a winning personality!  You have to give everything 1000%

And no brain can handle that. So what do we do? We do what our brains have evolved to do: cheat. Cognitive psychologists call these heuristics—cognitive shortcuts. Stereotypes, mnemonics, assumptions, bias are all examples of heuristics. We use these when we don’t have time to fully process through new information and/or when we don’t have the cognitive capacity (i.e., the mental energy) to attend, select, store, and retrieve relevant information. Our brains have a finite amount of resources and we use them up quickly. It’s why after a long day of work, or a difficult meeting, or during periods of high stress you are mentally drained. Your brain needs a break. Time to reboot. Time to solidify neural connections and make sense of everything. But when we don’t give your brains time to rest and reboot, and we cognitively push ourselves too far, we leave our brain no choice but to cheat.

Our students are being pushed too far. We require too much with too heavily weighted outcomes. We hang over them the threat of not being accepted into the college of their choice. Or being kicked off the softball team. Or not being able to spend time with their friends (the only time the frontal lobe gets a real break from its executive functioning duties). We tell them they better work hard and be great at everything or they will have wasted all of our hard work to provide them opportunities.

No wonder they cheat.

With the emphasis on standardized testing in schools, our students know they must do well because if not, they could be held back a grade. And wouldn’t that be an arrow through the heart after spending all academic year busting your butt to be the best? It all comes down to one thing: test scores. From a policy perspective, that single digit is an indicator of how much you learned and your potential to learn more.

For teachers, their students’ average scores are an indicator of their ability to effective do their jobs. And if that score is too low, they may be fired. Cue teachers cheating:

1)      Atlanta in 2011:  One of Their Own Told on Them

2)      Virginia in 2012:  These Teachers Just Gave the Answers

3)      DC in 2012:  They Used Statistics to Detect Cheating

(Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and California have also undergone state wide investigations of teachers cheating on end of year tests)

The stringency created by our heavy reliance on standardized tests is putting too much stress on our students and teachers. We are literally squeezing the education system so tight, people are buckling under pressure. So what do we do?

Implement assessment measures with more validity and less rigidity.

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This entry was posted in Policy.

One comment on “Why are More Students Cheating? The Answer is Simple

  1. […] got As, I would make damn sure they got As. Even if that meant lowering my standards, cheating (see my post on cheating), or doing nothing but test preparation all year. Which is exactly what […]

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