The Cheating Epidemic: How School Climates Affect Student Choices

A recent case of rampant cheating at Stuyvesant High School, a prestigious public school in New York City, has caught the nation's attention. Now, there is a fascinating new study in the fall issue of Independent School Magazine that looks at the prevalence of cheating among students at private schools. The study was conducted by The Josephson Institute of Ethics and surveyed 40,000 high school students.

The study produced several interesting findings. First, private school students report cheating far less often than their public school peers. In the Josephson study, 59.4 percent of all students reported cheating on a school test. In comparison, only 33.4 percent of students at non-religious private schools reported doing so. Unless private school students lie on surveys significantly more often than public school students, that's a huge difference.

A survey of private school students called the Independent School Health Check (ISHC) sheds further light on the habits of private school students, including matters related to academic honesty. Boys are more likely to cheat than girls (60 percent versus 38.5 percent) and high school juniors are more likely to cheat than freshmen or sophomores.

Here's the more interesting news: at the 36 independent schools surveyed, the percentage of students admitting to cheating on tests and quizzes ranged from 7 percent to 50 percent. That tells us that school culture matters.

What are the factors involved? When students have a negative view of their school, cheating soars. Over 46 percent of those who think their teachers are not fair and over 44 percent of those who say their teachers do not offer help report cheating. Students need to like school and trust that their teachers are on their side.

Surprisingly enough, there was no correlation between cheating and volume of homework. Students at schools with large amounts of homework were no more or less likely to cheat than students at other schools.

On the other hand, the researchers found a very high correlation between cheating and "partying." Fewer than 16 percent of nondrinkers say they have cheated, whereas over 50 percent of binge drinkers confirm that they have.

The bottom line: at schools where there is low trust between students and teachers and where heavy partying is commonplace, widespread cheating is a sure thing.

It's not easy for a school or a community to change its culture, but we all need to acknowledge that adults set the tone. Administrators, teachers and parents can turn a blind-eye to struggling students and rule-breaking, or they can emphasize the importance of mutual respect, cooperation and community norms. Widespread academic dishonesty is a symptom of a much larger problem.