Writin' & 'Rithmetic
How to succeed in school without really trying
By BRIGID SCHULTE
Sunday, September 15, 2002; Page W16
Nancy Abeshouse is excited about teaching this Advanced Placement literature class at Springbrook High School in Montgomery County. These are her best students, the class is rigorous enough to count for college credit, and the activity she has planned is one of the intellectual highlights of the year: She's had the class read Henry James's "The Turn of the Screw." They've had to write a paper on whether the main character, the governess, really saw ghosts in the creepy story or was just imagining things.
But it turns out not to be such a highlight. The discussion falls flat. Everyone in the class has the same opinion--that James didn't believe in ghosts and was parodying sexually repressed Victorian society. And most of the papers include variations on the same sentence: "Unable to express her desires, she imagines that she sees the ghosts of luckier souls who did express their desires."
After the students file out, Abeshouse, who prides herself on what she calls "teacher with-it-ness," is more than suspicious. She goes to her computer, logs on to the Internet and types bits of the telltale sentence into the search engine Google.
Up it comes on SparkNotes.com, a newer, hipper, online version of Cliffs Notes. "I wanted them to go through an intellectual exercise. And they just wanted the answer," Abeshouse says later. "By our standards, it's cheating. By theirs, it's efficiency."
A teacher for 22 years, Abeshouse has battled the run-of-the-mill copiers and cheaters, and in recent years even the ones who merely change the typeface and turn in their friend's homework. Usually she gives students zeros or sends them to the principal's office for a lecture on plagiarism. This time, since these students are among the best, she wants to teach them a lesson. She downloads the SparkNotes summary of "The Turn of the Screw"--which, she says, has an "anti-intellectual, cynical, what's-the-bottom-line tone." Then she prints copies of an analysis from a top journal, using letters James wrote to his publisher about the book and historical references to the era. She gives them both to her students and hopes they notice the difference. Or care.
Lately, Abeshouse has become nearly obsessed with how easy the Internet makes it for students to cheat and get away with it. "I've just found a Web site that posts International Baccalaureate-style essays. In different languages," she says, sadly triumphant. But what she may not realize is that the Turn of the Screw incident is just one skirmish in the ongoing cold war of high-tech cheating. "It's like an arms race," says Joe Howley, a student in an elite Montgomery County magnet program last year who says he watched widespread cheating from the sidelines. "And teachers are always playing catch-up."
Donald McCabe sits in his office at Rutgers University with a heavy heart. He is the founding president of the Center for Academic Integrity, and his research shows that that notion is fast becoming an oxymoron. And not just in colleges, where, he says, cheating is rampant. For example, the Student Honor Council at the University of Maryland processed about 250 cases last year, four times the number of cheaters a decade ago. And last year a scandal shocked the University of Virginia, where a physics professor designed software to detect plagiarism that ended up catching 154 students, 33 of whom were expelled or left school, with more trials pending.
McCabe is finding that cheating is starting younger--in elementary school, in fact. And by the time students hit middle and high school, cheating is, for many, like gym class and lunch period, just part of the fabric of how things are. It isn't that students have become moral reprobates in a generation. What's changed, says McCabe, is technology. It's made cheating so easy. And the vast realms of information on the, truly, worldwide Web are so readily available. Who could resist?
Not many do. In McCabe's 2001 survey of 4,500 high school students from 25 high schools around the country, 74 percent said they had cheated at least once on a big test. Seventy-two percent reported serious cheating on a written work. And 97 percent reported at least one questionable activity, like copying someone else's homework or peeking at someone else's test. More than one-third admitted to repetitive, serious cheating.
And few appeared to feel shame. "You do what it takes to succeed in life," wrote one student. "Cheating is part of high school," said another. Fifteen percent had turned in a paper bought or copied from Internet sources. More than half said they had copied portions of a paper from the Web without citing the source. And 90 percent were indiscriminate copiers, plagiarizing from the Net, from books, magazines, even the old low-tech standard, the World Book encyclopedia.
"Students were certainly cheating before the Internet became available. But now it's easier. Quicker. More anonymous," McCabe says. "I can't tell you how many high school students say they cheat because others do and it goes unpunished. Being honest disadvantages them."
Besides, most people get away with it. It's easy for students to stay at least one step ahead of their teachers. When teachers began noticing that students would copy from the Internet or from one another and simply change the typeface, students quickly moved on. They discovered the wonders of Microsoft Word's AutoSummarize feature, which can take an entire page and shorten it to highlight the key points. Cut. Paste. AutoSummarize. One more button to push. No more work. "They consider us Luddites, that we don't know as much about technology as they do," says Carol Wansong, who just retired from teaching at Mount Vernon High School in Fairfax. "And, of course, we don't. They were born with it."
Even if students are caught, the consequences can be negligible. At some colleges, students who plagiarize are expelled. But a high school student caught plagiarizing may just get a zero for that particular assignment. Often, he or she will be given a chance to make it up for at least partial credit. And there's no mention of it on the all-important transcript that gets sent to colleges. At Bardstown High School in Kentucky last year, 118 seniors were caught copying and pasting from the Internet. Sometimes entire short stories were lifted. The punishment? One essay on the evils of plagiarism. No National Honor Society memberships were pulled, and one of those caught cheating remained the class valedictorian.
Plagiarism--a derivative of the Latin word for kidnapping--literally means to steal someone else's words or ideas and take credit for them. According to the rules of scholarship, if you borrow someone else's words, you put them in quotation marks. If you use someone else's idea, you acknowledge it in your essay or in a footnote, even if it came from the revisionist southern-partisan.com.
All this cheating raises an uncomfortable question: Are successful, educated parents putting too much pressure on their children in the belief that going to an elite school buys entree into the good life and attending a lesser school will leave you at a disadvantage?
At Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, one of the top public high schools in the area, students answered the question for themselves after a decidedly low-tech cheating scandal--the student government president was caught last year with 150 answers to a final exam hidden in his baseball cap--raised the issue. A junior who wasn't involved in the scandal told the school newspaper that some parents "are under the impression that if you don't do well and your grades aren't top, you'll be lying in a gutter somewhere for the rest of your life."
To Wansong, who taught rigorous International Baccalaureate classes at Mount Vernon, it's not just that parents put pressure on their children to achieve, it's the attitude that the end justifies whatever means necessary. In the past, she says, she'd find one or two students plagiarizing their research project. But in recent years, with the advent of the Internet, it's been more like 12 or 14. "They showed no remorse when they were caught," she says. "I had students look me right in the eye and say, 'I don't see what the big deal is.' And their parents didn't either."
That attitude echoed loudly in Kansas last year. When teacher Christine Pelton failed more than two dozen students for plagiarizing from the Internet, their parents complained. The students were given credit for the work. And Pelton quit. (The superintendent who had told Pelton to restore the grades, however, recently resigned.)
Several area students who said they had cheated agreed to talk with me on condition of anonymity. While there was no way to verify the events they described without identifying the students, the stories they told did match the general patterns outlined by teachers and researchers.
One, a high school student in an elite magnet program, explained how he wrote an essay he was assigned on Shakespeare's "Macbeth." By 12:15 the night before the paper was due, he had yet to read beyond page five of the play. And he had no intention of starting now. "It just didn't interest me," he explained later.
He considered going to the Net and browsing one of the hundreds of Web sites that offer ready-made essays for sale or for trade, places with telling names like Paper Pimp and Other People's Papers. But he decided that was too risky. He signed on to AOL's Instant Messenger. That's where all his friends were at that time of night anyway. "Hey," he typed to a friend. "What'd you write for your essay?" Back came an e-mail attachment with the finished product: a character analysis of Lady Macbeth, with the required three supporting examples from the play.
What happened next is not hard to figure. Time was short and temptation great. He took his friend's first two ideas. But he didn't just do a quick copy-and-paste job. He knew exactly how to finesse it. He reworded sentences. Shifted paragraphs. Substituted words. "He said, like, she was insane. I changed that to 'not quite right in the head.' "
Then he signed onto SparkNotes.com, where he had his own account. He searched for citations of Lady Macbeth and lifted the last example from there. He prepared for the psychological warfare of fooling a smart teacher. "I just bs'd it. I drew attention to a small detail, like a painting on the wall, that was factually true, but not a big part of the story. Something that the teacher might take as proof that I read the book and understood it, even though I was just pulling it out of my ass."
By 2:20 a.m., the four-page paper was done. He crashed for a few hours. Woke, as usual, at 5:30 to catch his 6:40 bus. In school by 7:20 a.m., he turned the paper in. He got an A. He felt no remorse. "Remorse," he said, "just slows you down."
He knows what he's doing is wrong. But in his mind, it's not like there's a stain on his soul. I mean, he said, everyone does this kind of thing all the time. It's just being efficient. When you're taking a heavy course load of high-level classes, and getting home after 6 every night because you do so many extracurricular activities, you simply don't have time to do all that homework the old-fashioned way. And you have to keep your GPA up. You'll do anything to get that A.
"There's so much pressure on getting good grades," he said. "Kids are under so much stress. It's so competitive to get into good colleges. And the guidance counselors are always saying, 'Take more classes, do more extracurricular activities,' " he explained. "So we take the easy way out. We e-mail each other, pass on documents, go to the Net, anything that helps. There's so little time. And sometimes the assignments are so tedious. People will cut corners in every class. Especially on the smaller assignments, in less obvious ways." Even after they all signed an honor pledge? "That was just a piece of paper."
Despite the old adage, cheaters, it seems, do indeed prosper. In fact they may be the ones, like this magnet student, who are getting accepted into top-notch colleges and universities. "It's not the ones who work hard and study hard that seem to get ahead, nor the ones who blatantly plagiarize and cheat," he said. "It's the ones who are able to hide it and get away with it."
And that, apparently, is an awful lot of people. Two high schoolers, a boy and a girl, and one 14-year-old girl just out of middle school met me for lunch one day. Honors students all, they have impressive transcripts and big dreams for brand-name colleges and bright futures. The high schoolers' all-important SAT scores are nearly 1300 and 1420 out of a perfect 1600. They said they are considered the "good kids," the ones teachers point to for their honesty and hard work. In exchange for anonymity, they gave me a lesson in high-tech Cheating 101. Because, they said, they are all masters at it. "I'm not sparkly white," said the 16-year-old boy. "Most students aren't."
What they described was almost a cheater's code of ethics. And there is method to their madness. They copy and cheat when they feel sure they won't get caught. When they think the teacher is dumb, doesn't care or doesn't work very hard. When they think the assignment is busywork. And when it's a class they're struggling with that's supposed to be their guaranteed A. "My whole philosophy on cheating is, if I like the teacher, I'm not going to cheat, I'll actually do the work," said the 14-year-old girl. "But if the teacher is some stupid airhead that I just can't get along with, or can't deal with, then I'll cheat."
Last year, the boy's easy-A class was supposed to be Spanish. But the fast-paced lessons threw him and he was tanking.
Being computer-savvy, he soon discovered that the Spanish teacher had inadvertently put her private files onto the easily accessible internal school computer network. Every test question, quiz and exam, with the answers, was stored in her public computer file. It wasn't long before he formed a "cheating ring" of about 25 students.
Before each test, they took turns copying the answers into a Word file, reducing them to tiny type and printing out several copies for students to paste onto the backs of their ID badges. They all got A's.
In his advanced physics class, another teacher had at least caught on that students can and do store complex formulas in the memory of graphing calculators. Or, as the 16-year-old boy did for a friend last year, create a file with all the answers for their pre-calculus final. Many teachers have students remove calculator batteries before exams, wiping out any memory. So for exams he simply wrote the formulas he hadn't memorized on his leg. "I don't consider that bad cheating," he said.
But in his boldest move, the boy made cheating profitable in an unsupervised "distance learning" class taught by a teacher via e-mail. For $3 a quiz, he'd log on to the computer as other students and take their tests for them. He got so good, he was doing four or five in the 45-minute period, earning about $100 over the course of the semester, while the other students played video games. Everyone got an A. And how did he feel? "Like an entrepreneur," he said, smiling proudly. "We never even met this teacher, so it's kinda hard to feel guilty about it."
The 17-year-old girl said she cheats when she's overwhelmed. Which is often. And the 14-year-old said she cheats for the grades.
She took advanced French courses in elementary school. Students quickly learned the value of Internet translation Web sites like Babelfish.com, taking care to write in simple English so that the computer translator wouldn't write in tenses they had yet to learn, thus tipping the teacher off. For papers, she cut and pasted information from the Internet into the translating program. Or she plugged her search topic into fr.yahoo.com to copy from French language sites. In retrospect, this gave her pause. "Plagiarism is illegal, right? I feel kinda bad about it," she said. "But I would have failed horribly if I didn't do this. It's the only thing that helped me pass."
And that's the incentive? "Cheat and do well," she said. "Exactly." Her parents, she said, are "obsessive" about her grades. The 16-year-old boy's father routinely hands him a list of the top 25 universities in the nation and says, "Pick one."
And if they're caught? That's only happened once, when someone in the boy's cheating ring didn't bother to change so much as the typeface and copied an essay word-for-word from what the boy had copied from the Net. "The teacher gave us zeros and told us not to do it again," he said. "So we kept doing it. We were just more careful . . . You live. You learn. You cheat. You do it again."
With so much energy going into intricate cheating scams, are they learning anything? I asked. They looked frustrated, like I didn't get it. "We do have morals," protested the 14-year-old. "It's using your brain," said the boy. "It's what school is all about."
So when does it end? This brought a moment of silence. In college?
The 17-year-old girl pursed her lips. "I think people cheat a whole lot more."
The first battle in the high-tech cheating arms race between students and teachers was over "term paper mills." In
recent years, the number of places where students can buy, trade, pilfer or even
custom-order overnight essays for a mere $19.95 a page has mushroomed to more than 300, sites like CheatHouse.com and LazyStudents.com. The quality of writing they offer is as dubious as some of the ideas. King-Lear-Essays.com lists a paper on "Shakespeare's 'King Lear' and Groucho Marx' 'Duck Soup.' "
John Barrie, a Berkeley biophysics graduate student, wrote some software he intended to help students peer-review each other's work. Instead, they were selling each other's papers on the quad. So he rewrote the program to catch plagiarism. And now, that program has become a booming business, with some of the toniest names in public and private schools
paying for its services. Turnitin.com scans 10,000 papers a day, half of them from middle and high school students. One-third are plagiarized from the Web.
And most, Barrie says, come from high-achieving kids in top-performing schools. In the Washington area, Turnitin.com's clients include such well-regarded schools as DeMatha Catholic High School, the Landon School in Bethesda, George C. Marshall High School in Falls Church, the Washington International School and the entire district of Arlington County.
Students responded by shifting tactics. They began taking a sentence here, a paragraph there, in what Barrie calls "mosaic" plagiarism. The students in Nancy Abeshouse's class need not have relied solely on SparkNotes. A quick Net search on Henry James and The Turn of the Screw yields nicely obscure essays like "A Ghost Story or a Delve Into a Neurotic Mind?"
Barrie says Turnitin.com's software can detect anything copied from the Net down to an eight-word string. What it won't catch is students who crib not the words, but the ideas.
One student at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Prince George's was stuck on the "Hamlet" paper due in her AP lit class. So she went to www.field-of-themes.com and found the perfect essay. "I took a good idea that wasn't given much effort in the online paper and put it into my paper with correct grammar and clear sentence structure. Added a little quote. Touched up the final thought. And took credit for it," she wrote in an e-mail. "Is that wrong?"
Well, yes. "If all a student has done is taken big quotes or paraphrased and more or less pasted together others' opinions, by academic standards, that's plagiarism," says Abeshouse.
For teachers like Abeshouse, the next tactical move in the cheating war is to change the way they teach. Abeshouse has students write during class more. She asks for rough drafts of term papers, annotated bibliographies, summaries of contents, evaluation of sources. "We don't ask them to summarize a book anymore. Now we ask for comparisons, personal responses, evidence of themes," she says. "Any teacher that says, 'The term paper is due four weeks from now' is asking for the kiss of death."
But who will win the wider conflict in the cheating game is anyone's guess.
"It's naive to think that once a student has a high school or a Harvard diploma that all of a sudden they become an ethical person," says Turnitin's Barrie. "Where that leads you to is a very ugly society in the future."
His purloined paper on Lady Macbeth long forgotten, the magnet student eagerly packs to go off to a top university. He has applied to six universities, and, with his high grades, been accepted at all six. With scholarships. He has no qualms that he will do whatever it takes to succeed. "It's highly conceivable I'll cheat," he says matter-of-factly. Unlike Lady Macbeth, he has learned to sleep at night with an uneasy conscience.
Brigid Schulte is a reporter for The Post's Metro section.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company