By Julia Rubin
These days, cheating scandals seem to be in the news more often than not. We read about cheating at the country's most prestigious schools, cheating on college entrance exams, and even cheating by teachers. Some call it an education epidemic, and evidence suggests that high-achieving students are more likely to partake than low-achieving ones due to the intense pressure they feel to succeed.
"In high school, I cheated on plenty of assignments," explains 18-year-old Emily. "With the pressures of being an honors student, it was hard not to. The amount of homework we were given was impossible to finish in time, even if you stayed up until one in the morning. I honestly never remember a time I wasn't tired. Often I'd forget we had to do a short, easy worksheet until the bell had already rung, and the person next to me would be nice enough to let me scribble their answers down."
Natalie, a high school sophomore from Indiana, agrees. "Cheating is just the norm," she says. "My friends and I talk about it like it's no big deal. It shouldn't be this way, but the pressure to get into a good college is mounting, and we have to do what we need to get the right grades."
While the motivations behind cheating are fairly universal, there's certainly a range in terms of just how far some students will go for an A. While Emily has copied classmates' homework, she says she's never cheated on a test. High school senior Rachel explains she would never do so on a big exam, but concedes that "cheating on something like a 5-point quiz is way different than a 100-point test." Conversely, 15-year-old Michelle from Pennsylvania cheats on tests, but rationalizes it this way: "I only cheat when I'm hopeless on a question. Sometimes it's not how smart you are, it's how smart you work."
Data backs up this ambivalence. According to a survey of 23,000 high school students conducted by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, 51% of teens admit to having cheated on an exam—and 93% report they're "satisfied with their own ethics and behavior."
One explanation for the satisfaction? Most students never get caught. For those that do, well, it can be a difficult thing to get past. Sydney, a 17-year-old in Iowa, copied an English assignment word-for-word from a friend. Her teacher picked up on it and called her out. "Ever since then, this teacher's totally lost respect for me," she says. "It's unbearably awkward for me to be in her class. I've apologized many times, but I'll always be a cheater in her eyes."
But whether or not students actually get in trouble, cheating can still be damaging. Even now, New York high school senior Sophie feels the repercussions of having skimped on studying all throughout 8th grade math. "I regret cheating on those middle school algebra tests, not because I'm not totally psyched I got an A+ (I am) or because I feel bad for the teacher (I don't), but because it caused a spiral effect that has lasted my entire high school career," she says. "I've struggled in math for the last four years, and I always blame my lack of effort in 8th grade for my current shortcomings."
For some, all it takes to get perspective is time. Once a stressed-out honors kid, Emily, now a college freshman, is singing a different tune: "College work seems strangely easy to not want to cheat on, since everyone takes different classes and has different assignments, and I actually care about each one."
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