High School Cheating: A Means to “Survive” The Pressure?

By Debby Shulman

Over the last few months, I have discussed interesting essay topics with my students applying to college. While I try and guide my students away from such topics as overnight camp and traveling to exotic places, I often have to stop and listen to a story that bears great personal significance. So, it came as a great surprise to me this past October, when two students from the same school told identical stories about the rampant cheating in their high school.  Not only did they barely know each other, but also they had no idea that I was tutoring both of them. After a couple of weeks, I thought about what they had to say and asked them if I might share their stories with my readers.

I reached out to some students who are close family friends, and who also attend the same high school. Eager to share, they described the events in front of their own parents.  They spared nothing; they were almost too happy to finally tell an adult. We were having this intense conversation in my girlfriend’s kitchen, and all of our kids were really involved in what was being said.  I had no idea what a Pandora’s Box I had opened. So, in the interest of being fair, I asked several more students from local high schools, the same question:

Is the cheating in your high school above and beyond what you would consider to be normal? 

Here’s the shocker: They told the truth (kind of a paradox when discussing cheating) — but they did.

One of my own kids admitted right away that yes, there had been ‘innocent’ cheating on random tests over the years and like my students, he knew of teens who had engaged in “serious cheating.”  ACT’s and SAT’s, Prarie State, and of course, final exams.  He even told a story about two siblings who resembled each other so much, the younger one took the ACT for the older one, allowing him to apply and ultimately be admitted to a college he might not ordinarily have attended. Urban legend? Toxic gossip? It doesn’t matter – the story was Out There, names and reputations damaged and in some capacity, elements of it portrayed the truth.

Some of my other students, who attend a very large, equally prestigious suburban high school echoed the sentiments of both my children and the other students I had spoken with.

Cheating is everywhere. It is enticing, and it is because the competition is SO stiff.

I guess the answers didn’t surprise me at all.  And, I couldn’t very well reprimand or punish my own kids for telling the truth, right?

What has caused such a dramatic increase in this type of behavior?  My personal guess is the pressure.  Recent documentaries such as Vicki Abeles’s, “The Road to Nowhere” have highlighted the negative effects of too much academic pressure on our teens. Cheating seems to be another manifestation of the stress. I listened to sad stories of students pushing the limit, arguing with test proctors during college entrance exams and sharing answers via text messages. My students described angry classmates trying to manipulate teachers, throwing their weight around with threats of parental intervention in the hopes of intimidating them into a better grade.  There was no shame – these students were obnoxious in their behavior because they felt entitled.

It was as if they had a right to that grade, even if it was earned by cheating.

The worst offenders, according to my students, are the most intelligent.  They are the ones who have been born and bred for Ivy League educations with transcripts loaded with honors and AP courses.  Their parents have multiple degrees, boast resumes of top-notch universities and remain legacies and donors to their alma mater.  They are all so extraordinarily smart, but so insecure about climbing their way to the top, that they risk everything to cheat off of others in the hopes of at least matching or exceeding their competitive classmates.

I am reminded of the pressures I place on my own kids to excel academically, and wonder if this is what it leads them to do.

Are we creating a generation of dishonest students all in the interest of getting an A?

I feel that I have a decent perspective about what they are capable of doing compared to what is unattainable.  But am I still creating unnecessary stress when it comes down to “cheat or not to cheat?”

I don’t know.

Students who feel compelled to chronically cheat no longer trust their own judgment.  They seem to lack their own confidence and the behavior becomes addicting.  It is a sad statement about their emotional limitations and feelings of self-worth. With so many other students watching in disbelief, they forfeit the respect and admiration they might otherwise have achieved by hard work and discipline.

Have YOU ever asked your teen, without fear of punishment, whether or not they’ve cheated?  Do you think you know the answer you would get? Like me, I suspect you’ll think differently about the amount of pressure placed on those A’s.

Are your teen’s good grades an extension of YOU?  Or are they an honest reflection of what they are capable of doing?

I have to believe that experiencing the despair of a bad grade earned honestly teaches a better lesson than the loss of integrity when getting someone else’s A.

What do you think?

Lisa Barr, Editor of GIRLilla Warfare:  Debby Shulman is a college essay consultant and academic tutor with a private practice in Northbrook, Illinois.  She also professionally collaborates with Amy Simon College Consulting in Bannockburn, Illinois.  Debby also blogs about Motherhood/Teen issues for Your Teen magazine (www.yourteenmag.com). Check out her valuable advice. 



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