Are High School Students Hard-Wired to Cheat?

The plan seemed foolproof, as plans usually do when you’re 17. Several students would stand guard while others used stolen keys to break into the filing cabinets of teachers for algebra, calculus, chemistry, and advanced math honors classes. They would steal copies of exams and distribute them to dozens of students, and all of them would be able to ace the high-stress tests that would help determine where they’d end up in college.

In all, school authorities at Hanover High School, in the prestigious New Hampshire town that is home to Dartmouth, determined that 50 students were involved in planning the 2007 break-in or using stolen answers. And nine of the students—the “Notorious Nine,” as they came to be known—faced criminal charges.

The case of the Notorious Nine has become perhaps the most infamous case of student cheating in the last two decades. But while it may be extreme, it isn’t unusual; in fact, cheating on homework and exams has become so common that many students don’t even consider copying answers cheating anymore. The odds that a high school student has cheated on a test within the last year are 1 in 1.56 (64%).

And the advent of cell phones and a bevy of other tech devices available to students has made cheating even easier. The odds that a high school student copied work from the Internet in the last year are 1 in 2.78. Yet 42 percent of students said in a survey that they didn’t consider this cheating, or considered it a minor offense. Thirty-five percent also admitted to cheating with their phones, usually by texting answers during a test or taking pictures of exams with the phone’s camera.

Technology is also blurring the line between what is and isn’t cheating, and sometimes students have trouble navigating the shifting ethics of website assistance. Is it okay to use SparkNotes, the wildly popular site that condenses and summarizes books often taught in English classes and breaks down themes commonly assigned as paper topics? What about Course Hero, where college students can share millions of course notes, homework assignments, graded essays and even old tests and quizzes; or Cramster, which caters to high school students and offers the answers to textbook problems from 225 different textbooks? Already, the odds that a high school student will have copied another’s homework in the last year are 1 in 1.22 (82%), and that’s without taking these “online community” sites into account. With an electronic universe of information perpetually available, the nature of teaching, learning, and even of knowledge itself may be about to undergo an examination of its own.

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