Cheating at Friends Academy: An Exposé

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With additional reporting by Will Duke, Olivia Fine and Cameron Hellerman

On a testing day several years ago, Mrs. Clark noticed something awry as her students silently plodded through an exam. Later investigation revealed that one student had copied formulas onto an eraser, and was using this “cheat sheet” while others, of course, had no such advantage. “I had had a good relationship with the student, and this [incident] really hurt that,” Mrs. Clark recalls. She has caught other students trying to get by in this manner: one with an index card in a sweatshirt pocket, another blatantly looking at someone else’s quiz. “Now I make sure that all things are gone, desks are clear, backpacks are zipped.” Not even tissues are safe from this kind of scrutiny, let alone Starbucks cups and crumpled cough drop wrappers.

A situation like this is certainly not unique to Friends Academy; similar scenes abound at schools and universities around the globe. Academic cheating, defined broadly as trying to pass someone else’s work for one’s own, is currently a highly explored piece of our educational fabric. A recent study at Stanford University reported that 75-98% of college students surveyed each year admit to having cheated in some way during high school. In the past few months, cheating scandals at very prestigious institutions—including Harvard University and Stuyvesant High School in New York City—have made headlines. And the infamous pay-for-play SAT ring has rocked standardized testing administration across the country from its discovery point in Great Neck.

As the names of other schools are publicized and criticized for the cheating scandals that sweep their halls, questions persist about how exactly cheating manifests itself within the Friends Academy community. With its competitive environment and prestigious reputation, Friends theoretically presents the perfect climate for academic cheating on both a large and small scale. Its location on the North Shore of Long Island further seals its fate: this is a region where success is prized above all else and competitive fires are fueled from early ages. So what is the level of academic honesty at Friends? Do Quaker values help to uphold the principles of integrity, or does the pressure of high achievement cause students to buckle? An anonymous survey conducted of all high school students brought to light some interesting information about the true nature of cheating at Friends.

Out of the Upper School’s 379 students, 117 completed the cheating survey, with fair representation from each grade level. For the purpose of the survey, cheating was defined as any and all of the following: Copying another student’s homework, looking at another student’s answers while taking a test, carrying notes into a test, sharing test hints or answers in between classes, plagiarism and the employment of someone else to do homework or write essays. About 82% of students who participated in the survey had witnessed cheating at Friends, with most citing a frequency of once or twice a semester. From the five core disciplines, History was ranked with the highest percentage of cheating observed, followed by Math. Language rounded out the list of core disciplines with the lowest amount of observable cheating, followed by the Arts where most students felt that cheating was nonexistent.

In the next section of the survey, students were asked to check off the cheating methods that they felt most applied to them as students at Friends. Out of all students who completed this section, the highest number—47.2%, translated into 58 students—admitted to giving test hints to others taking the exam at a later time. Homework copiers emerged a close second, with 44.7%, or 55 students. In a box attached to this question where students were able to submit feedback if they so wished, one student simply wrote “phones.” Does this mean that Friends Academy students are using phones to pass along assessment information? If so, it seems that Mrs. Clark’s clean-desk zipped-bag method is the way to go. Surprisingly, only 3.3% of students, 4 in all, admitted to plagiarism of any sort; the lowest representation of the cheating categories. This data points out that small-scale cheating is most common at Friends, despite some students’ assumptions that plagiarism happens more often. While homework copying and test answer sharing may happen daily and discreetly, plagiarism is possibly the method of cheating most frequently caught by teachers, and its gravity as an academic offense means that incidents of it are made more public throughout the community.

Perhaps the most telling question of the survey chronicled students’ reasons for cheating. Just about all of the cheating research currently being done by experts across the world cite pressure as the primary factor that propels students to cheat. But pressure is an enormous and multifaceted force, a reality that doesn’t always stem from our school systems. Rather, pressure is often homegrown, planted at family dinner tables (or rushed meals in transit between extracurriculars) and cultivated at homework desks and college tours. “Cheating happens here because of pressure,” states Mr. Posada. The Friends student body agreed with him: 81% of the 116 students who answered this question cited “pressure for good grades” as their main reason for cheating. Laziness, overscheduling, procrastination and pressure from parents ranked next all hovering around percentages in the high 40s, and pressure from self at 36% was followed by pressure from teachers at 26%. “Students are busy, tired, and (especially at a school like FA) are extremely pressured,” wrote a student in the response section. “…Its just that in a community that is stressful…students tend (involuntarily) to look at the other kid’s test while taking a test or even [have] the tendency to copy one’s homework.”

This pressure-cooker culture has not materialized out of thin air. Rather, it is the product of impossible standards that are advertized by colleges and universities—arguably the most highly revered institutions in this country. “It comes from the top,” says Mrs. Clark. And then it trickles down, combining with skewed images of “successful” individuals to create parents that push and kids that cheat. This year alone was one of the most difficult years on record for college acceptances, with hundreds of thousands of applicants rejected from schools on the basis of standardized testing scores that were “not quite there.” In too many cases, differences of twenty points separated the “accepted” pile from the “look elsewhere” pile. When that much is at stake, it is little wonder that honesty is sometimes suspended in order to attain the superhuman heights of achievement that seem to be necessary these days. “People are so concentrated on the end result, that all else is justified,” explains Mr. Dugger. Each year, he is handed at least one essay that has clearly been written by a hired professional. Good college essays can cost thousands of dollars, and can be very helpful in securing acceptance to a school that may otherwise have rejected that particular applicant. Last year, he saw duplicates of the same one—submitted by different students. In an effort to create a more efficient business, these college writing experts seem to be erring on the side of carelessness.

In many ways, though, the Quaker principles of Friends Academy seem to stand firmly against the torrent of negative corner-cutting messages. Does Friends Academy’s tremendous emphasis on personal integrity work to steer some students away from a cheating path they may otherwise be tempted to take? “Most students make this decision in a moment of panic…at that point, mental ‘stop’ signs aren’t seen very clearly,” notes Mr. Morris. “It’s that moment of panic at 2 A.M. when a paper is due the next day. Do I copy and paste, or not?” echoes Mr. Baskind. Of course, some students may be under more pressure than others, and some may be more predisposed to have a cheating mentality. On the survey, 64% of students admitted to cheating between two and five times throughout their Friends Academy careers. This number was significantly higher then the runner-up—once during a student’s career at Friends with 19.5%. “Is it easier to cheat the second or third time?” asks Mr. Morris. The survey data shows that to be likely.

The effects of Friends Academy values can truly be observed on the survey’s eighth question, which asked students whether or not they thought cheating to be an acceptable behavior. Out of 119 students who answered, 93, or 78%, acknowledged that cheating is not acceptable under any circumstances. Almost seventeen percent responded that cheating is acceptable under certain circumstances, and a mere five percent answered that cheating is always acceptable. Although students do occasionally cheat, they at least recognize the immorality of their actions, likely thanks to some aspect of their education in Quaker ideals. It seems that outside elements, not inner convictions, drive academic cheating. In a response box that asked students to elaborate on circumstances where cheating may be considered acceptable, one student responded: “When parents tell me the grades are the bottom line.” Again, achievement above all, at all costs, no matter the moral or monetary price. “Judicial board has reminded me that students get bombarded with far more messages about achievement than they do about integrity,” says Mr. Baskind. In the middle of Long Island’s North Shore, which can sometimes feel like a glorified shark tank, high achievement is often deemed the only way to survive.

Not only do students sink or swim in this manner, but schools do as well. Friends seeks to distinguish itself from other schools through its adherence to Quaker principles, with mixed results. Certainly, the core ideals of integrity and respect already work as significant preventatives for student cheating, especially in its more morally compromising forms. “I’ve seen fewer instances here of conspiracies among groups of students to cheat. In other schools, there are more instances of students working in conjunction,” Mr. Morris says. In fact, at Stuyvesant, the cheating scandal was a conspiracy—students supported each other in what was basically a big collaborative project that helped them to meet the intense demands of the school. Whole classes worked together to pass along test answers in complex ways that, if nothing else, showcased the ingenuity of the students and their willingness to combat the oppressive force of Stuyvesant pressure.

Another thing that sets Friends apart from public schools in the world of cheating is the connectedness that students feel to the school. The Independent School Health Check, or ISHC, is an annual survey that examines academic honesty, student motivation, and other issues in private and public schools around the country. According to the ISHC data, a high percentage of independent school students feel connected to their academic environments, feel supported by their teachers and take interest in what they are learning. Public school students, on the other hand, are less likely to feel that sense of connectedness. By combining several collections of data, the ISHC was able to come up with these numbers: 19.4% of students with a high connection score cheat, 28% of students with a moderate score cheat, and 42.3% of students with a low connection score cheat. Therefore, the more a student feels welcomed and satisfied by his academic community, the less he is likely to engage in academic dishonesty. The nurturing environment of Friends Academy fosters a high sense of connectedness that may act as a natural deterrent to cheating.

So cheating does occur at Friends, frequently enough to be significant but not as often as at some other schools. Knowing this, what can the Friends Academy community do to reduce cheating levels even further? In order to effectively combat cheating within the school environment, teachers first have to be aware of its many different forms. The last question on the anonymous survey asked students whether they thought that Friends Academy teachers had a good grasp on the cheating that occurs at the school. The response was mixed: the highest percentage of students—37.9%—believe that some teachers do not have a clear idea, while 34% seemed to think that most teachers do have a clear idea. At 27%, fewer students felt that most teachers at Friends did not have a clear idea about cheating. If teachers seek a cheating-free academic environment, they will have to find ways to get a better sense of the cheating that occurs on a day-to-day basis. This way, all teachers can act consistently to eradicate academic dishonesty within their individual classrooms.

Beyond firmly outlining classroom rules and carefully monitoring all exams, there are a variety of ways that teachers at Friends can work to prevent opportunities for cheating. “Teachers should use different tests for different classes,” Mr. Nelson suggests. “There need to be more in-class assessments,” stresses Mrs. Clark, although Mr. Nelson expresses a yearning to be able to assign more take-home essays and papers. He underscores the importance of the revision process in students’ work: ideally, students could complete a writing assignment at home, bring it to class for editing, and then have more time at home to think about it. But in a world where parents and tutors write essays for students, where brilliant sentences are available at the mere click of a mouse, this assignment style may now be practically impossible.

Instead of focusing on what the school does not do to prevent cheating, Mr. Morris focuses on what the school does to cause it. He feels that students usually cheat because there is some kind of “imbalance” in their lives. “As a school, we have to evaluate how we contribute to that imbalance,” he says. Does this mean that less homework is the answer? “I went to an all-girls school, the top one in the city. We had maybe twenty minutes of homework a night,” Mrs. Clark recalls. Less homework would presumably reduce the overscheduling problem, allowing kids to focus on relaxation time or extracurricular activities after school instead of trying to cram everything into a day that simply isn’t long enough. Or maybe the school should try to move away from fact-based, AP style testing. These solutions could help, but the conservative tenets of the Friends Academy community would make such progressive changes difficult to implement.

In reality, an individual school, Friends Academy included, may have little control over student cheating, for academic dishonesty is ultimately a consequence of the direction in which the American education system is heading. Higher standards than ever push for curriculums that are increasingly dense, translating into more and more information that students have to remember and regurgitate. All aspects of the education system are increasingly numbers-driven: standardized tests scores drive teacher salaries and determine college acceptances. In the past few weeks, a group of public school teachers in Atlanta, Georgia were found to have changed wrong answers on students’ standardized tests to correct ones, fueled by the higher paychecks that higher scores would yield.

The numbers game is not just affecting students, then, but at least some educators as well, setting a deplorable example for the children who may have looked up to them. But the world thinks numerically these days: things are faster, words are smaller, and fingertip accessibility has contributed to a global sense of impatience. Mr. Nelson believes that “consistent written and verbal feedback” would be a better way to evaluate students than simple grades and scores. At the same time, he laments that “it’s a lot easier to explain to a parent that a kid is an 82% than to say that the kid has trouble analyzing text.” So essays are boiled down to numerical scores; student’s efforts translate into percentages. With the passage of new statistics-based legislation, the trend appears ripe to continue.

In the tangled monstrosity that is the world of academic cheating, gray areas remain. The same Stanford study that reported today’s astronomical percentage of confessed high school cheaters also claimed that only 20% of college students admitted to cheating in high school in the 1940s. Is this because of modern pressures, or is cheating just easier nowadays?

Perhaps not coincidentally, other recent studies have shown that student empathy at the college level is at an all-time low. Is this, too, caused by the cutthroat competition that now governs kids’ lives from an early age? At two years old, children in New York City are already battling each other for admission to preschools. Then they go through life, constantly hoping that the failure of others will add more points to the curve or place them in a higher percentile. These students rely on survival instincts to make it through their academic careers, and suddenly the entire educational process looks like a bad remake of The Hunger Games. But at the end of the movie, collaboration prevails. Maybe this is an important message: instead of separating and policing students more actively than ever before, perhaps educators should be harnessing the power of students working together. In an increasingly complex world, this could be the best answer to the troubling dilemmas that modern education engenders.

In the past few weeks, the song “Feel This Moment,” a duet between Pitbull and Christina Aguilera, has enjoyed a spot on iTunes’ top ten list. Without a doubt, a significant number of Friends Academy students helped its success by downloading it onto their iPods and streaming it through their headphones in the library’s Quiet Reading Area. In addition to Pitbull’s catchy verse and Aguilera’s powerful refrain, the song features something else: the instrumental hook from band A-ha’s 1985 hit “Take On Me.” Essentially copied and pasted into the song, the loop adds a bit of nostalgia, and acts as another dimension that makes the song arguably better than it would have been otherwise. There are a lot of good ideas out there. If this song was praised for its borrowing of an old note sequence, why can’t students incorporate ideas that they admire into essays and papers? In this modern age, compilations of the new and the old may only intensify. There is, however, a fine line between collaboration and criminal activity, the battle over authenticity and authorship.

 

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