The classroom is bustling with paper-shuffling and nervous banter as students quickly review their notes in the hope of cementing the material in their minds before the test. Perched anxiously on the edges of their plastic seats, George Smith* and his friend are painfully aware of their lack of preparation. After the test is distributed and dividers are put up, the two begin to whisper to each other, realizing that their knowledge of the content overlaps just enough to cover all the topics on the test. In an act of last-minute desperation, they make a pact to cheat off of each other. With calculated shifts in paper placement, Smith and his friend alleviate their GPA-related fears with an easy fix. Their promise to help each other out, however, violates another agreement they already made as TPHS students: the academic honesty policy.
An umbrella term for a wide range of activities, cheating, according to the TPHS academic honesty policy, includes everything from sharing homework answers and plagiarism to unauthorized collaboration on graded activities. The SDUHSD website outlines consequences for cheating that run the gamut from an automatic zero and referral to the removal of school-related leadership positions and suspension.
According to Principal Rob Coppo, the type of consequence given to students who cheat depends on the severity of their actions. Teachers also play a significant role in determining the consequences for academic dishonesty, which vary on a case-by-case basis.
Although they are fully informed of the dire consequences associated with cheating, Smith and his friend are not alone in violating the academic honesty policy. Polling conducted by the Falconer found that 59.7 percent of students admitted to cheating before.
Despite the California Education Code stating that “each teacher shall endeavor to impress upon the minds of the pupils the principles of morality, truth, [and] justice,” the prevalence of cheating at TPHS shows that these values have not been successfully imparted upon the student body. For multiple anonymous student interviewees, cheating is not a moral dilemma and leaves them with no guilt. Rather, cheating is justified and the byproduct of immense academic pressure from parents and peers, which drives students to take any action necessary to maintain the grades expected of them.
“I feel like there is just a pressure to succeed that outweighs any guilt that [students] have,” Smith said.
Among those who see cheating as the only way to meet their parents’ academic goals is Anna Johnson*. Although cheating is challenging in classes like math since “you have to look at the other person’s work,” Johnson cheats “every other time we have a test in classes she doesn’t “really care about.”
“In Chemistry class, the teacher doesn’t pay attention whatsoever, so we literally look at each other’s papers and copy everything down,” Johnson said. “I don’t really feel guilt about it since the teachers don’t really pay attention.”
Anna often cheats because she doesn’t always feel like studying but does not think cheating is limited to less academically-driven students.
“I think that mostly all students cheat because I have seen students in support classes cheating and students in advanced and honors classes still cheating. Everyone cheats,” Johnson said.
According to Denise Pope, Stanford psychologist, senior lecturer and co-author of “Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful Kids,” Anna’s view of cheating as a universal act is backed by data.
“You’ve got cheating rates at 88 percent of the entire population,” Pope said. “It’s not just one population that cheats more. There’s not a difference among populations.”
While Johnson only cheats in classes where she feels her potential of getting caught is low, other students are bolder.
When Spanish teacher Leonor Youngblood was reviewing with a student a few months ago, she didn’t know he took a photo of an upcoming test that was lying face-up on her desk. She only learned about it later when another student told her what had happened.
“With the rise of technology, we have kids who can take a picture of an answer. We have kids who, right after a test or quiz, text a friend and let them know the answers that have been on the test,” Pope said. “Technology makes transmitting these much easier and at an alarming speed that we are not used to.”
Johnson, like 88.4 percent of TPHS students according to the Falconer’s poll, uses technology for cheating, often sharing homework answers with her friends. Beyond sharing answers, students have gone as far as stealing them.
A few years ago, another student stole Youngblood’s test from her filing cabinet while she was sick at home and a substitute was teaching the class.
After finding out, Youngblood gave the student an F on the exam and contacted the parents. That afternoon, she had to spend several hours creating new tests and making copies for the other teachers in the Spanish department.
For Youngblood, her many years in teaching have made it easy to identify when a student is being honest or not. Similar answers on more than one test or paper are especially obvious indicators of cheating.
“It’s certainly very disappointing whenever I see them being dishonest in their work,” Youngblood said. “Cheating is a problem that is prevalent all the time.”
Although Youngblood tries not to “dwell too much on cheating” and believes in giving students ample time to redeem themselves, she believes strict consequences help prevent the deceptive act from happening again.
According to Pope, one of the main reasons students cheat is high parental pressure.
“One of the reasons why students cheat is because they believe that their parents want and expect them to get really good grades,” Pope said.
Pope believes parents need to emphasize integrity over academic success.
“As a parent, it is extremely important that you are having thoughtful conversations with your children and love them even if they’re not bringing home straight As,” Pope said. “You’d rather have them receive a good grade honestly than to find out that the grades are only good because they wrongfully cheated.”
Similarly, math teacher Zakia Chowdhury agrees that she would much rather see her son, who is currently a junior at TPHS “get a C on his test … and move on from that mistake,” than cheat by “[running] away from a test that he does not learn anything from.” Over her many years of teaching, Chowdhury has seen various forms of cheating happen both inside and outside of the classroom. Chowdhury tries to remind her students and sons of the importance of academic honesty, which she believes is reflective of a person’s character as a whole.
“You should study ahead of time and do the best you can,” Chowdhury said. “Please don’t participate in a discussion and be purposely not be there on the day of the test.”
Falconer’s poll also allowed students to provide written reasons as to why they cheat. The responses included “I wanted a good score,” “I want to go to college” and “Not enough time.”
Getting away with cheating comes down to opportunity.
When Emily Brown’s* substitute teacher walked out of the class during a test, it only took a few seconds before the usual silence of testing was broken and students began exchanging answers. Brown and the rest of her table group began collaborating with the smartest person at the table.
“Kids took the opportunity and they began cheating on the test so that they could get a better grade,” Brown said. “When the sub came back, he had no idea of what happened.”
While Brown had studied for the test and did not consider it difficult, she still participated in the cheating.
“I guess that the school atmosphere is just like ‘As and stuff,’ and if there is just an opportunity, even people who studied hard, they would rather just take the easier route,” Brown said.
According to Pope, student justifications for cheating signify the difficulty of their coursework.
“I don’t think that cheating is ever justified,” Pope said. “Try not to overload yourself with an excessive amount of AP classes or Honors and extracurricular activities and make sure that you are getting about 8 to 10 hours of sleep every night … when you are sleep deprived, you are more likely to make choices that are purely out of desperation.”
Johnson believes she would not need to resort to cheating if she had the time to study.
“In middle school, everything was a lot easier, and I wasn’t under a lot of time pressure,” Johnson said.
Pope attributes the pervasiveness of cheating to the busy schedules of high schoolers.
Coppo agreed, citing enrollment of TPHS alumni in prestigious universities as reason as for why parents have high expecatations for their children.
“I think there are a number of reasons why students cheat. It could be because they have overloaded themselves and are unable to keep up, so it’s a shortcut,” Coppo said.
In the long run, Coppo thinks cheaters only hurt themselves.
“I get the temptation, but any time you take the shortcut and you get a bumper sticker, you’re cheating yourself,” Coppo said. “Ultimately you’re losing out on that knowledge and that great opportunity to challenge yourself.”
Benefiting from the learning process and committing to treating assessments fairly, however, is difficult to balance with promises to meet parental expectations. So long as her parents continue to pressure her to get As, Johnson is doubtful her cheating habits will end anytime soon.
Will she cheat on any test this week?
“Maybe Chemistry,” Johnson said.
*Names changed to protect identities