Fake it to make it: Students turn to cheating in high-stress environment
Editor’s Note: Anna, Betty, and Patricia are pseudonyms to protect the anonymity of the sources.
For the first four reading quizzes, Patricia, a junior, bit the bullet and watched as her friends scored 9/10’s and 10/10’s while she struggled. She looked on in silence during the test as her friends subtly compared answers and pulled out their phones to search on Google when none of them knew.
But after seeing that there were few to no consequences even after five quizzes, Patricia gave in to the temptation.
“It was basically peer influence,” Patricia said.
It started with the peer grading system. Patricia and her friends would exchange quizzes when the teacher called time; if they had written any incorrect answers, they would quietly change those answers for each other once the teacher said the correct answer.
Even before she joined her friends, cheating hadn’t bothered Patricia too much — it was hard to notice that others had been changing answers after the quiz and even more difficult to prove that people had.
It was seeing her peers compare answers during the quiz that had driven her to cheat. But instead of notifying the teacher about her concerns, Patricia decided to join them.
The issue of cheating is hardly new to American high schools. In a survey of 24,000 students at 70 high schools, Donald McCabe of Rutgers found that 95 percent of students admitted to participating in some form of cheating, whether it was cheating on tests, plagiarizing or copying homework. In the Bay Area especially, cheating is largely attributed to heavy workloads and the pressure to meet extremely high grade standards.
According to assistant principal Brian Thompson, cheating has been a serious problem the teachers and administration here deal with on a yearly basis. Many students make poor choices and decide to cheat because they don’t have enough time to do the work on their own. As much of their time is taken up by additional activities and extracurriculars, they find themselves facing a difficult situation to either accept a lower grade or cheat.
On a survey posted on Facebook, approximately 79 percent of 259 SHS students admitted having received information about a test they had not yet taken at least once in the fall semester. Seventy-five percent admitted to giving information to other students who had not taken the test yet. Math held the lead as the subject students would most likely ask about, followed closely by science, history and English.
Generally, Patricia said she does not cheat in her STEM classes.
“Even if I was given the opportunity to cheat in math or chemistry, I wouldn’t,” Patricia said. “It’s just APUSH, because who needs United States history in their career paths unless you’re doing something special?”
According to Thompson, students receive a zero on their assignment and possible Saturday school the first time they cheat, and the incident goes on their record as a first offense.
If a student has a second cheating incident during their four years at SHS, they are suspended from school and are reminded that colleges will be aware of the cheating incidents. In the case of a third cheating offense, the discipline is suspension and possible change of schools.
Social media sources
For many students, the lines surrounding cheating are blurrier than others might think. With the ever-growing role of technology and social media in students’ lives, gray areas have surfaced concerning what is truly considered cheating.
On Facebook, for example, students often create groups for specific classes in which they can ask questions about homework and share materials. Openly posting study guides for tests has become a common practice as well as a source of controversy.
At the start of the 2016-17 school year, a group of students created the website SHS Advisor to provide collections for study guides in many classes. The creation of this website raised questions among the faculty, and some teachers have directly expressed concerns about it.
World History and AP European History teacher Jerry Sheehy said that by having easy access to online study guides, students lose the experience of actually going through the material and writing down the information themselves. This can lead to a more shallow understanding of the material and possibly lower test scores, Sheehy said.
Students also express information in different ways, meaning one person’s study guide might not be suitable for others, or even contain completely accurate information.
“It’s a murky moral ground,” Sheehy said. “I guess it’d be one of those cases where you’re not necessarily violating the letter of the law, but you might be violating the spirit of the law.”
Another gray area is the use of online test banks.
Many teachers put past AP test questions, which often can be found online, on their study guides and tests. According to an anonymous senior, Betty, if she can’t find an answer in the textbook or notes and is struggling to study on the night before a test, she is often tempted to search the questions online and find question banks as a result.
Numerous students, especially juniors bombarded with tests, also find it quite easy to find test banks online and even pass them around among friends, according to Betty.
This compromises the teachers’ expectations that their tests are fairly assessing their students’ knowledge. In addition, not all students are aware of or have access to the material online, leading to questions about the fairness of this studying method. Some of the test banks available are also created by textbook publishers for teacher use, and are not meant to be accessible to students.
Betty admitted that it is not a good idea to use test banks, since it keeps students from learning the actual material, but said it is difficult not to when most of the other people in a class are using a test bank.
“I do think it is unethical, but it’s hard to resist when this is inbuilt into the competitive culture at Saratoga, especially on nights when you have a lot to do and don’t have the time,” Betty said.
According to Sheehy, scouring the internet for AP Exam questions is not an efficient studying strategy for the in-class tests he makes. However, he does not consider it cheating if students use public resources to study, and happen to read a question that turns up on the test. Sheehy himself sometimes uses sample AP questions from teacher conferences, and creates other questions by himself or from the textbook.
In his history classes, he passes out study guides that list out topics on the test, and also organizes a game of jeopardy for his classes to play right before the test.
“I’m not trying to trick my students,” Sheehy said. “I guess taking out the mystery discourages the cheating because you don’t feel like it’s even necessary. I try to remove all reasons to cheat.”
Discussing test content between periods
Another common issue occurring in other classes has been the discussion of test answers between periods.
In the first semester, AP Chemistry teacher Kathryn Nakamatsu gave her students a “pop” reading quiz. As the day went on, she noticed an interesting trend: students in later classes consistently scored higher than those in earlier periods. On regular quizzes, by contrast, there was no such discrepancy. Scores varied by class period but did not generally increase as the day went on.
This was not the first time that Nakamatsu had seen this trend. She remembers feeling “irritated” in previous years for the same reason — students in later classes inexplicably scored higher on pop quizzes.
Conversations between periods range from general conversations about the difficulty of tests to discussions about specific topics and questions. According to Anna, an anonymous senior, students often help their friends because they want to reduce their stress. She does not consider giving questions and problems on tests to be cheating, since the person still has to learn the material.
Anna admitted that she has never gone into a test, except those during first period, without knowing even a little bit about it, even if it was difficult or not.
“I feel like I need to ask because I just want to do better; it’s to benefit yourself,” she said.
According to Sheehy, general questions such as “is the test easy or hard” don’t bother him, especially since tests can be different for everyone, but the conversation crosses a line when specific topics or questions come into play.
“I don’t think that’s something teachers can do much about; that’s on the students,” Sheehy said. “But I don’t come into my job with the impression that 90 percent of my students are trying to figure out ways to cheat. I look at it as 90 percent are interested in learning, and I’m not setting up a situation where the standards are just too high, which is when students might feel pressured to cut corners and cheat.”
Academic pressure at SHS
Before coming to Saratoga High, Nakamatsu taught for six years at Monte Vista High in Danville until 2006. Though she did not give pop quizzes there, she did notice clear differences in the academic culture between the two schools.
“There was pressure,” Nakamatsu said, “but not like here.”
Back then, Nakamatsu said, getting into colleges was easier than it is now. She believes that much of the pressure high schoolers feel today stems more from the difficulty of earning college admissions and less from a culture unique to Saratoga.
“It’s hard to compare,” Nakamatsu said, “because it was a different student demographic, different time and different circumstances.”
AP US History teacher Kim Anzalone, who started teaching at Los Gatos in 1983 and moved to Saratoga in 1991, has noticed considerable differences in the levels of competitiveness between the two schools.
“I think the levels are definitely higher here in Saratoga, but there will always be a core group of students who jealously guard their information because they want to have the higher GPA than someone else,” Anzalone said.
Though teachers may try to continue implementing policies to curb cheating, such as changing tests between periods or curving tests between multiple classes, Patricia said that students will always find loopholes. To her, cheating and academic integrity violations stem more from the students’ hypercompetitive culture.
When Patricia was a freshman, she never dreamed that she would cheat. As time went on, however, she began to accept the realities around her.
“As crazy as this sounds, I feel like our competitive academic environment shaped and, in a way, forced us into cheating,” Patricia said. “We no longer live to our own standards, but rather other people’s.”
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