Overwhelmed by parental pressure to achieve top grades or simply caught unprepared for exams, most of the 1,355 students at La Jolla High School choose a time-honored way out:
They flash signals during exams. They copy one another's homework. They plagiarize information for term papers. Aided--at least in the past--by naive, unsuspecting teachers, they cheat so frequently that the school's honest students have often felt foolish and frustrated because they played by the rules.
In a survey compiled in February, 65% of the students at the city's premier high school admitted to cheating on at least 1 of their previous 10 assignments and tests. On any given assignment, 17% of them were cheating. The survey also showed that students from three different ability levels cheated at the same rate.
"I don't know anybody who hasn't cheated at least once," said senior Hugh Dandrade. "It's a way of life."
"Last year, if I didn't know an answer, I'd just see if I could get it," said Cathy Stevenson, a senior who said she has stopped cheating this year. "I knew it (was) wrong. But I wasn't having a heavy guilt trip and walking around (thinking) 'Oh, a sin.' "
Research shows that students elsewhere cheat at least as frequently as those at La Jolla High. In a statewide survey conducted last spring by the state Department of Education, 75% of the students admitted to cheating on tests and nearly 60% said they did it regularly.
But La Jolla High's reputation as one of the nation's best secondary schools makes the degree of dishonesty a bit more startling. The only Western public high school belonging to the Cum Laude honor society, La Jolla High each year produces about two dozen National Merit semifinalists and sends many of its students to the nation's top colleges.
"We were astounded, absolutely astounded by the level (of cheating)," Principal J.M. Tarvin said. "I would have guessed 3 in 10 did something that bordered on being dishonest."
School officials disagree about whether students at less competitive high schools cheat as often. Tarvin believes they do. Ruby Cremaschi-Schwimmer, principal of Lincoln Preparatory High School, where test scores have historically been among the school district's lowest, believes they don't.
"I'm sure there's some cheating at Lincoln High School, but I know it's less than that," said Cremaschi-Schwimmer, who is trying to raise academic performance at the Southeast San Diego school. "As we put the screws on, that may happen."
Students everywhere cheat, and La Jolla High is one school confronting the problem head-on, a method for which the blunt Tarvin is known. With angered students and parents pressuring for change, the school last month sent home a new academic honesty policy, spelling out seven kinds of cheating and their corresponding punishments.
Teachers were warned this semester to take more precautions against cheating and were asked to discuss with students the need for ethical conduct--inside and outside the classroom.
"Everyone has said for 30 years, for 40 years, for 50 years that cheating is a problem," Tarvin said. "And La Jolla High decided that we are going to do something about it. Right, wrong or even, just the fact that we have done something about it is a positive" step.
The push for honesty, fueled by complaints by students who felt penalized for being honest during tests, came on the heels of some blatant examples of cheating:
- Last year, a student was caught photocopying pages of a multiday examination given in an advanced placement biology course. He was flunked from the course.
- Also last year, a physiology teacher who was skeptical of claims of rampant cheating made up three different exams for three separate classes. When the tests were completed, it became apparent that a huge majority of students had received the answers--the wrong answers--from students in previous classes.
- Two years ago, a student obtained the answers to an exam, printed them on tiny scraps of paper and taped the paper to pencils. He was caught selling the pencils to his peers and punished.
Teachers and administrators say they are sure that students have banks of exams and term papers in their homes.
"There are files in this community that will take care of any test that I've ever given," said John Carey, who has taught at La Jolla High for 25 years.
Some students have established personal honesty hierarchies in the belief that various kinds of cheating are morally acceptable. Several said that the work load at La Jolla is so heavy that they sometimes copy friends' homework when they don't have the time to finish it themselves.
"I'm not going to say that minor cheating is OK, because it's not," one student said. "But you can't do all the homework all the time, so it's a way to get it done."
Two seniors, Julia Dashe and Stevenson, said they have in the past arranged to receive signals from friends for an occasional difficult exam question. They drew a distinction between that practice and cheating on an entire test, which they condemned, and they admitted resenting students who copy all their work.
"I think the worst thing about cheating is when you have studied so hard and the person sitting next to you copies all your work and does just as well," Dashe said.
Others disagree. "I think there's no excuse for cheating, no matter what the circumstances," said Wendy D'Allaird, president of the student government. "It doesn't seem fair that I did the work and they didn't and they get the grade."
Yet the survey showed that more than 95% of the students would not turn in a cheater.
"You can't really turn in your friends," D'Allaird conceded. "It's just an unwritten law."
Last year, one student broke the law. During an oral examination in a biology course, student Vindu Goel strode across the room and closed the book of a student who was using the text to cheat. When the student opened the book again, Goel went back and angrily slammed it shut a second time.
"The kid was cheating in other places, and he was cheating frequently," said Goel, now a freshman at Harvard College. "And I finally decided someone was going to have to do something about it. And it was going to be me."
This fall, with the anti-cheating campaign under way, Goel has become something of a hero among teachers who have heard of his action.
Teachers and administrators are hoping that the honesty campaign will show quick results.
The academic honesty policy, sent home in October, is believed to be the first of its kind in the San Diego Unified School District. Students and parents are required to sign the document, acknowledging their familiarity with the consequences of cheating.
A student caught cheating on a test, for example, will be given a zero on that exam. A second offense carries a penalty of automatic failure for the course and the lowest possible citizenship grade.
This year, instructors are making up several copies of tests, favoring essays over multiple choice exams and watching students more closely. They have also been told to end the troubling practice of raising grades under pressure from some students.
"I feel that the teachers at our school make cheating easy," one student wrote to the academic honesty committee of students, parents, teachers and administrators that last year conducted surveys and wrote the new honesty policy. "They give multiple-choice tests and let other students correct (them), then give grades verbally. I have teachers who walk out during tests and give the same tests every year."
"I was appalled by some of the things that happened or failed to happen . . . the lack of vigilance," said Vicki Lindblade, an economics and government teacher who served on the committee. "I think that there was more trust there than there was any reason to be."
Perhaps more significantly, teachers are discussing with students the need for honesty, integrity and responsibility.
"It's not that we're trying just to teach them information, but we are also trying to teach them certain values," Lindblade said. "If it's OK to cheat on your homework, maybe it's OK to charge the government $500 for screws."
While many feel that it is too early to tell if the measures are having an impact on cheating, students say they have already noticed some teachers' heightened vigilance. And school officials say that they have now served notice about what is expected from students.
"Parents know about it. Students know about it. Teachers know about it. So there shouldn't be any question any more," Vice Principal Joy McAllister said. "In the past, the trouble was that the consequences weren't always the same."
"We've got them thinking about it," said Michael Lorch, who headed the honesty committee as vice principal of La Jolla High last year, before he was promoted to principal of Correia Junior High School. "I'm not saying we've changed their ethical standards or the way they think about it. But we've got some ground rules now. The rules are defined. Now, we have to see if we're tough enough to back it up."
Students remain skeptical. "If I wanted to cheat, I would go ahead and do it, whether or not I've signed a piece of paper," said one student who admits to copying homework from friends.
Mari Metcalf, a senior who last semester spelled out her objections to the new policy in the student newspaper, believes that the school should attempt to curb intense competition as a method of curtailing cheating.
While she admits that the new written policy may "make you think twice," Metcalf notes that the school itself often fosters competition. In one high-level honors course, a teacher asked students to reveal their scores on the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test to the class. Metcalf refused.
"Everybody is really worried about what college they're going to. It's just a really competitive and scholastically oriented school," she said.
That, most people agree, is the root cause of La Jolla's cheating problem. La Jolla High is home to the bright, affluent, ambitious children of highly successful parents. They are often under extreme pressure to best their classmates and win spots in the top universities. The competition for those spots has become increasingly intense, guidance counselors said.
"It's not only college but the college," Lorch said. "Very often, the college will be designated (by parents) by the time the kid is 5 years old."
"There's a lot of pressure to get good grades. There's a lot of pressure from our parents and from the school. . . . There's a lot of pressure to go to school and get a good job," said Dandrade, a senior.
In a society that has become increasingly oriented toward success at any cost, honesty has become a less valued commodity, school officials said.
"We've made the stakes so high in terms of grades and class rank and scores on tests, to get into college or get the right job, that the fear of failing or being less successful than desired in that quest is greater than the fear of breaking the rules," said district Supt. Tom Payzant.
Said one student who was caught cheating on an exam: "During a test, you don't know a question and you say 'Oh no, I have to get this question. I have to get good grades. I have to go to college.' "
On the survey, 42% of the students listed the need for high grades demanded by colleges as their motivation for cheating, and 25% listed parent pressure for high grades as the reason they cheated.
The most frequent reason given for dishonesty, by 53% of the students, was that the student was unprepared for the assignment or test. While some students attributed that to the work load, others said it was due to laziness.
"A lot of people, particularly out in this area, are used to having things come easily to them," said Constance Mullin, a parent who served on the academic honesty committee. " . . . When all of a sudden things don't come so easily, you're not used to having to put out the effort."
Ethical codes vary from home to home. "Given a choice, no parent wants their kid to cheat," Tarvin said. "Given a choice, every parent wants their kid to succeed. Those may not be compatible goals."
This fall, two parents called La Jolla High to report that their daughters would be out sick that day. Actually, the girls spent the day in Los Angeles. Stopping for hamburgers, the two settled back in their car to eat--and found themselves in the middle of a police stakeout.
Upon learning from police where her students actually were, Vice Principal McAllister decided to have a word with the parents.
"I told them they were making my job harder," she said.