Everyone is talking about the Corona del Mar High School cheating scandal.
Since the news broke in December that a group of students, colluding with a private tutor, allegedly used a computer hacking device to alter grades and access tests, a day hasn’t gone by when the subject fails to arise among the network of parents I know in Newport Beach.
The story has been picked up by many media outlets, suggesting that instances of academic dishonesty strike a chord among a large audience.
Although most of us are dismayed by the brazenness of the alleged cheating, sadly the news doesn’t come as much of a surprise.
Academic cheating is as old as formal education itself, and though the vast majority probably goes undetected, culprits are routinely outed, from middle school to Harvard. The means and methods might change to adapt to new technology and teaching styles, but there will always be those who succumb to the temptation to cut ethical corners.
Just two years ago, I wrote a column in this space after another incident at CdM involving a student who reportedly bought test banks online that contained test questions used by teachers, then shared the information with others.
Data on academic cheating can be alarming. One nationally recognized study, by the Josephson Center for Youth Ethics in Los Angeles, most recently surveyed more than 40,000 public and private high school students in 2010. Of those responding, 59% admitted cheating on a test during the prior year, and 34% said they’d cheated more than twice. One-third said they’d used the Internet to plagiarize.
Some education sources suggest that even findings such as these might underrepresent the full scale of cheating throughout academia.
Yet it’s also important for us to understand the environmental context and underlying forces at play when discussing cases of academic dishonesty.
For one thing, the data on cheating must be taken with a large grain of salt. Unearthing the true extent of cheating in schools is notoriously difficult, and survey results are often viewed as unreliable.
In part that’s because the very definition of cheating is slippery and open to varying interpretations: Does padding a bibliography count? When does collaboration among students cross an ethical line? If certain questionable behavior isn’t explicitly prohibited, can it be justified? How do we keep up with the growing number of ways to access and share information through technology?
The reporting on cheating scandals nationwide is also increasingly viewed through the prism of the intensifying pressure on kids to perform academically. The stress zone of college admissions and the outsized importance placed on high-stakes exams create a climate of cutthroat competition that is the antithesis of sound educational goals. Yet these are the yardsticks by which we choose to measure our children’s success.
The topic of academic dishonesty is also rarely raised without mention of broad cultural ills that give kids misguided messages about acceptable behavior. This includes media portrayals of criminals as heroic and rule-breaking as anti-authoritarian chic, and institutions that play fast and loose with truth and fair play.
In recent years, many schools have been discovered cheating on standardized tests, hardly a sterling example for students to follow.
Another important element to the context in which cheating occurs is the feeling by many young people that the system is rigged anyway. If students believe they’re not being treated with respect and fairness, they’ll likely be more inclined to ignore the rules. This perception applies to everything from the college admissions game to teachers who — not always, but sometimes — lack compassion, apply rules arbitrarily and intentionally try to trip up students with test questions on subjects not covered directly in course materials.
We adults must accept some responsibility for creating this breeding ground for unethical behavior.
To be sure, none of this is excuse enough for cheating on the scale that has so far been alleged in the recent CdM case.
The school board has yet to decide what, if any, actions to take regarding any students found to have participated in the scheme. Some form of expulsion and academic discipline may be on the table.
I’ve heard a few observers argue against harsh penalties, believing that kids’ futures shouldn’t be ruined because of one lapse in judgment.
I don’t see it that way, nor do many other parents I’ve spoken with. Though I’m a big believer in the principles of restorative justice, and I sympathize with the instinct to protect children from pain, in this case if students were knowingly complicit, they need to take responsibility, face the consequences and make amends.
Their lives need not be destroyed by an academic black mark. On the contrary, it could be a gift in the long run, a chance to rebuild with the wisdom and maturity that can result from persevering after a hard fall. American culture, after all, embraces second chances.
But let us not forget that the rest of us — parents, district administrators, principals and teachers — have an obligation to reexamine the messages we send to kids. We may live in a sometimes ethically nebulous world, but if we’re ever going to reduce the level of cheating in our schools, we all need to walk the walk.
PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.