Column: The Focused Student: Academic integrity — cheating at school

Honesty is the best policy, according to an oft-quoted old saw, but it’s a policy followed a lot less than 100% of the time by 100% of the people, especially when those people are students.

Cheating, by any other name is … well, there are many euphemisms and no shortage of justifications. Ever heard (or said), “I ‘forgot’ to report the cash I got for a few jobs,” or “I gave the cashier a $10 bill and she gave me change for a 20! Must be my lucky day”? Cheating, fudging, “forgetting,” “sharing,” it’s all pretty much the same.

Cheating occurs at all levels of education and it’s not exclusively a public or private school issue. Here are some facts about cheating:

• Cheating typically begins in middle school. Nine out of 10 middle schoolers admit to copying someone else’s homework, and two-thirds say they have cheated on exams.


• Cheating most often occurs in science and math classes.

• Seventy-five to 98% percent of college students surveyed each year admit to cheating at some time in their academic careers.

• Nearly 75% of 12,000 high school students surveyed admitted to cheating on an exam at some point during the prior year in order to get ahead.

According to a 1998 poll of Who’s Who Among American High School Students as reported at, 80% of the country’s best students cheated to get to the top of their classes. Half of them did not see it as a big deal and most did not get caught.


For students, cheating is often a result of fear — fear of not being competitive, fear of disappointing parents, fear of looking like an underachiever to peers, fear of not getting into the right school or college.

Another reason cheating continues is that “everyone does it.” Most students believe this to be true, and as the numbers above show, this is not a misperception. Cheating in school is prevalent, so much so that many teachers ignore all but the most egregious cases.

A third reason students may cheat is because of what they see their parents and other adults do. We misstate their age to get a lower admission cost at movie, we wink at tax cheating (“everyone does it”), we condone minor offenses in sports in order to win.

Ultimately, we become inured to cheating, thus making it acceptable through our inaction. Students see it around them and read or hear it on television and social media.

Can you overcome the forces of social media, peer pressure, and self-imposed (if unrealistic) expectations and the “need” to cheat in order to meet those expectations?

Yes! At home, encourage honesty while acknowledging reality. Emphasize the gratification that comes from being honest with yourself, even when you could get away with being less than honest. Foster integrity and encourage your child to be a leader among his or her peers when it comes to being honest. And make certain you don’t contribute to the problem by being that demanding parent for whom only straight A’s is adequate performance. Let your child know that an honest B is more highly valued by you than a dishonest A.

At school, teachers need to present the same messages and explain to students how one act of dishonesty could have consequences that follow them for a lifetime. As students move into high school, teachers need to stress honesty and give examples of how cheating has backfired on others who continued going down that route. Teachers also need to invest the time and effort needed to create assignments and exams that are not readily shared or copied, and they need to be attuned to the misuse of electronic devices to facilitate cheating.

Cheating isn’t inevitable, everyone isn’t doing it, and its existence wears down the moral high ground on which we should all stand. Share that with your children, then help them live it.


Robert Frank is the executive director of the Hillside School and Learning Center in La Cañada. He holds a master’s of science degree in special education and has more than 40 years of teaching experience. His column appears on the last Thursday of each month. He can be reached at