Can't stop, won't stop

Dec. 15, 2005, midnight | By Katherine Duncan | 15 years, 1 month ago

Some Blazers cheat compulsively in order to excel in school

Where only first names appear, names have been changed to protect the identity of the sources.

Bill waits eagerly within the bustling confines of the SAC during 5A lunch as his friend approaches an academic support room.

"Hi, I'm Bill and I'm here to make up a test," Bill's friend tells the teacher in the room.

"No, you're not," says the teacher. "Bill is in my class, and you're not him!"

Bill's friend quickly ducks out of the room, narrowly avoiding the teacher's probing questions and any accompanying consequences for attempting to cheat.

When Bill's friend returns to lunch and recounts the story to Bill and his friends, they all share a laugh. Realizing that now he will have to take the test himself, Bill considers his remaining options and devises a new plan to cheat.

Looking back on this memorable incident from his sophomore year, Billy, now a senior, smiles at his lackadaisical attitude towards both schoolwork and cheating. Bill has been cheating on a fairly regular basis ever since seventh grade, when he started copying math homework and cheating on vocabulary tests.

Bill and many other habitual cheaters at Blair are reflect of a national trend of teen academic dishonesty: According to the Center for Academic Integrity, over 70 percent of high-school students admit to instances of serious test cheating, and over 60 percent admit to some form of plagiarism. Bill, who says that he is addicted to cheating, is one of several Blazers who, in response to academic pressure, feel the need to cheat compulsively.

Cheating the system

As Bill eats his lunch at a rowdy table in the SAC, he is surrounded by cheating. Inconspicuous as any other group of friends sitting amongst a mess of papers, pens, apples and sandwiches, Bill's friends chat as they copy each other's homework and try to figure out who will be able to get the answers to an upcoming test. At this point in his academic career, Bill is unfazed by such behavior and admits that he has cheated at least once in all of his high-school classes with the exception of gym. "I cheat a lot because homework is unfair," Bill says. "We spend six hours a day at school learning stuff we're forced to learn, then we're expected to go home and, with the few hours we have before going to sleep, do more work."

In an effort to flout the system and do things his own way, Bill often copies homework and completes work during lunch or other classes to avoid doing any school-related work during his free time. "I just don't like to open my backpack at home," he says.

Paula, a senior and seasoned cheater, feels a similar resentment towards school procedures, namely test-taking. A self-described bad test-taker, Paula began cheating because she wanted to excel in school and realized that tests and quizzes often make up over 50 percent of her grade in any given class. "I don't like that 30 or 40 multiple-choice questions gauge whether you know a subject," she says. "Tests don't really show knowledge on a subject, and they're especially difficult for me because I always second-guess myself."

At the height of her compulsive cheating, Paula would devise elaborate schemes to cheat on tests, choosing her seat strategically based on who was the best person to copy from. "I spent more time figuring out how I was going to cheat than I actually spent studying," Paula says.

This compulsion is what differentiates Paula's cheating habits from those of any other, more occasional cheater. "It's a way that some people cope with anxieties and take control over their environment," says social worker Lenore Shapiro, director of Clinical Studies at the Washington School of Psychiatry. "People who cheat compulsively are not in control of their behavior."

Great expectations

Because of several close calls with teachers, Paula has become less extreme in her cheating habits, yet she cannot completely shake the habit. An honors student, Paula believes that her compulsion is fueled by her anxiety about school and drive to succeed in her classes. "One of the main reasons that I cheat is because I don't trust myself," she says. Even if Paula knows the material and has studied, she still checks other people's papers to be sure. "I don't rely on cheating," she says. "It's just a way of checking my work, but through other people."

Paula is not alone in her dishonesty: Among teens who rank at the top of their classes, 78 percent say that they have cheated in school, according to USA Today. Joshua Aronson, a psychology professor at New York University, is unsurprised by this statistic, saying that peer competition and the need for approval can set the stage for cheating. "People aren't born to [cheating] by and large," says Aronson. "Rather, it tends to be fostered by social forces that surround them—a highly competitive atmosphere … that emphasizes grades and social comparison, and grading on a curve rather than mastery and love of learning."

Bill also identifies pressure to do well in school as a main reason for why he cheats regularly. A combination of his parents' emphasis on good grades and his teachers' high expectations influences Bill to go to great lengths for a good grade. "If [your performance is] not strong at the beginning of a quarter then you're [screwed] up for the rest of the time unless you cheat," he says.

Accustomed to cheating and bending school rules to his liking, Bill goes by a general motto when it comes to school: "If it's an 'A,' then it's not my work," he says.

Close calls

Both Bill and Paula have almost gotten caught cheating, but they have largely been able to avoid getting into serious trouble. While Bill's only run-in with a teacher was the time he tried to get his friend to take a test for him, Paula has not been as lucky. She has been accused of cheating various times, but her teachers have never been able to prove anything other than the fact that her test or homework is nearly identical to that of another student. These experiences, however, have not deterred Paula from cheating on a regular basis. "It's subconscious — not something that I mean to do. It's just part of my daily routine," she says.

Though Paula and Bill have both gotten around Blair's discipline policy, being caught cheating can result in serious consequences. Any violation of the academic honor code or testing procedures results in no credit on that assignment. Accompanying consequences for the first offense is a call home, for the second offense is a two-day in-school suspension and for the third offense is a two-to five-day out-of-school suspension.

Looking to the future, Bill plans to eventually stop cheating once he goes to college. "Since I'll be learning what I want to learn and I'll be paying for my education, there will be no need to cheat," he says.

But abruptly ending established habits is harder than it may seem, however, according to Shapiro. "The idea of compulsion is that somewhere inside [of a person], there is no choice—they can't stop," she says. "They're driven to do it."

Meanwhile, for the remainder of high school, Bill does not intend to stop cheating. As he finishes up the rest of his lunch, Bill pulls out some notes from his backpack that bear someone else's name in the top right-hand corner and begins to copy them onto a fresh piece of paper. "You'll never catch me, Blair!" he exclaims.

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Katherine Duncan. Katherine Duncan is beyond excited to be in her senior year of high school. A perpetually tired, slightly spaztic girl, Katherine enjoys many things--including hanging out with her friends, going shopping and being lazy. Though she is still license-less, she has a permit (finally) and … More »

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