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Academic Cheating Background

Academic cheating is defined as representing someone else's work as your own. It can take many forms: from sharing another's work to purchasing a term paper or test questions in advance, to paying another to take a test or do the work for you.

Statistics show that academic cheating among high-school and college students has risen dramatically during the past 50 years. The results of the 29th Who's Who Among American High School Students Poll (of 3,123 high-achieving 16- to 18-year olds – that is, students with A or B averages who plan to attend college after graduation) were released in November, 1998. Among the findings:

  • 80% of the country's best students cheated to get to the top of their class.
  • More than half the students surveyed said that they don't think cheating is a big deal.
  • 95% of cheaters say they were not caught.
  • 40% cheated on a quiz or a test
  • 67% copied someone else's homework

According to the results of a 1998 survey of 20,829 middle and high school students nationwide conducted by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, 70% of high school students and 54% of middle school students said they had cheated on an exam in the last 12 months. According to Josephson, the same question asked of high schoolers in 1996 prompted 64% to admit they had cheated. This demonstrates a 6% increase in only two years.

ETS Research:
In order to better understand academic cheating and be proactive, ETS recently commissioned three studies: 1) Focus groups with test takers (conducted by Conway, Milliken & Associates) which included nearly 100 test takers for one of the following: SAT, AP, GRE, GMAT, TOEFL, PRAXIS; 2) Focus groups and interviews with 255 test takers, college and high school personnel (conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago); and 3) Phone interviews with test takers, parents, school and college personnel (conducted by Rowan & Blewitt Incorporated) which included 2,436 test takers and adults and 412 college personnel. The results were compelling.

  • The general perception is that cheating is widespread. Students believe that cheating is more prevalent and accepted today. They see it in every facet of life: politics, business, home, and school.
  • The perception is also that cheating is changing. Cheating on tests given in school is widespread.
  • Collaborative academic (team) environments like the Internet are making the definition of cheating even murkier.
  • 56% of educators and 31% of the public, students and parents say that they hear about cheating incidents. However, only 35% of educators and 41% of the public, students, and parents agree that there is a problem with cheating on tests.
  • 73% of all test takers, including prospective graduate students and teachers agree that most students do cheat at some point; 86% of high school students agreed.
  • Many who have engaged in cheating cite the following as rationales: It's a victimless crime; It's o.k. to many if you don't get caught; it has it's own language (using shortcuts, whatever it takes, everybody does it, part of life); it makes up for unfair tests or lack of opportunity.
  • High school students are less likely than younger test takers to report cheaters, because it would be "tattling" or "ratting out a friend."
  • Fewer college officials (35%) believe cheating is a problem in this country than do members of the public (41%).

Our research clearly demonstrates the influence of pressure on the incidence of cheating. We know that cheating behaviors are well-established by high school; the stakes of a test may influence the probability of cheating; and parents and educators may unintentionally aggravate the problem with pressure for results over learning.

General Background:
Cheating is seen by many as a means to a profitable end, a way to obtain the highest grades in order to gain admission to the best universities. Students who do not cheat are not only at a disadvantage, but can be viewed as fools for not playing the system, a system that has grown tolerant of cheating with few punishments. This system continues to place more and more emphasis on getting the grade by any means possible. The benefits of individual learning are no longer seen as a goal or focus.

According Donald McCabe, Professor and Associate Provost, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, and Founder of The Center for Academic Integrity, "Students feel justified in what they are doing. They are cheating because they see others cheating and they think they are being unfairly disadvantaged. The only way many of them feel they can stay in the game, to get into the right school, is to cheat as well."

The Role of Technology in Cheating:
Technology has made cheating even easier. High-tech cheating includes using information from the internet without proper attribution, downloading term papers from on-line paper mills, and sharing answers through e-mail or diskette. Numerous websites are dedicated to helping students cheat. According to Kenneth Sahr, founder of School Sucks, a website providing free term papers to students, his site has averaged 80,000 hits per day. Boston University recently filed suit against eight web companies that offer on-line term papers. The companies have included disclaimers on their websites indicating that the papers are for research purposes only, and are not to be submitted as original work. However, BU called the disclaimers a "sham" and said other advertising shows that the companies are well aware the papers are intended to be submitted as original work

Cheating Through The Ages:

Although little research exists about cheating among pre-school and elementary school students, the following information has been presented by Janis Jacobs, a specialist in social development and associate professor at Pennsylvania State University.

At the Pre-School level children understand that cheating is morally wrong, as opposed to a social transgression (i.e. eating with their fingers). Because moral development consists of their own needs vs. punishment, they are prone to cheat in order to win.

At 5-6 years of age many children cheat if the opportunity arises. In one study of this age group, 84% knew that cheating was not allowed. However, 56% cheated. This is primarily true because they have an inability to inhibit their actions at this age.

Elementary School:
Although elementary age children (ages 6-10) are presented with more opportunities and motivation to cheat, most believe that it is wrong, but that it depends on the specific incident (i.e. "Johnny was sad because he didn't know the answers, so I let him copy mine."). Additionally, elementary age children do not believe that cheating is common, and admit that it is hard to resist when others suggest breaking the rules. At this age the need for approval is related to cheating, and finally, boys cheat more frequently than girls

Middle School:
Most research shows that cheating begins to set in during the middle school years (ages 11 – 13). According to The Josephson Institute of Ethics, "The evidence is fairly clear that cheating begins in the middle school fairly seriously and escalates in the higher grades, 10th, 11th and 12th grades, because that's when the stakes are highest. It doesn't seem as if it's necessarily a dispositional thing, like they've never thought of cheating before. It's that there isn't much reason to cheat in the elementary school."

According to Jacobs, research at this age shows that middle schoolers are motivated to cheat because of the emphasis placed on grades. In one study, 2/3 of middle school students report cheating on exams; 90% copy homework. Furthermore, even those who say that cheating is wrong, will cheat. The bottom line: If a child's goal is to get a good grade, he is more likely to cheat.

High School:
Research has shown that the incidence of academic cheating among high school students has risen to all-time highs. The studies conducted by Who's Who Among American High School Students, as well as those conducted by The Josephson Institute, are just a few of the many that demonstrate the problem. In addition, a 1997 Connecticut Department of Public Health survey of 12,000 students showed that 63% of 11th graders and 62% of ninth graders reported cheating on an exam in the previous 12 months.

"In the past it was the struggling student who was more likely to cheat, just to get by," according to Michael Josephson. "Today, while it is becoming almost impossible to flunk out, it is the above-average, college-bound students who are cheating. As a matter of fact, cheating is higher among college-bound kids than any other group."

College bound students are expected to be all they can be to get into a selective college. They need to get the best grades, play the best sports, perform community service, etc. The pressure can be overwhelming – leading many students to cheat or plagiarize.

According to Stephen Davis, a psychology professor at Emporia State University in Kansas: "about 20% of college students from across the nation admitted to cheating in high school during the 1940's. That percentage has since soared, with no fewer than 75% and as many as 98% of 8,000 college students surveyed each year now reporting cheating in high school – and the majority admitting doing it on several occasions.

Josephson adds, "We've never heard things like, ‘We have too much homework,' it is more of, ‘I'm involved in basketball, I'm involved in the Glee Club and I'm involved in …' They have tons and tons of activities, and schoolwork is only part of it, and therefore, part of the justification they make is: ‘Since I can't do it all, we have to cut somewhere, and, what's the big deal."

Higher Education:
"Cheating is more widespread at the nation's colleges and universities than it was years ago because it no longer carries the stigma it used to. Less social disapproval and increased competition for spots in graduate schools have made students more willing to do whatever it takes to get the grades," so says Professor McCabe. "If a student feels disadvantaged because others are cheating and seeming to get away with it, they'll say: I'm not stupid enough to blow my chances by not doing the same." McCabe also comments that many schools stopped paying serious attention to cheating as they felt the need to focus more on problems such as campus safety and substance abuse.

Professor McCabe's research has revealed the following indicators for cheating:

  • Campus norm
  • No honor code
  • Penalties not severe
  • Faculty support of academic integrity policies is low
  • Little chance of being caught
  • Higher incidence at larger, less selective institutions


  • Business and engineering majors are most likely to cheat
  • Future plans include business
  • Men self-report cheating more than women
  • Fraternity and Sorority members
  • Younger students
  • Students with lower GPA's (or those at the very top)
  • Others doing it
  • Faculty members disinterested
  • Required courses not in their major
  • No stated rules or rules unclear
  • Heavy workload

Our research shows that students feel that their cheating will not affect anyone else. However, as they graduate into the worlds of business, medicine or government, they will be judged by their actions and their knowledge. If a graduate's performance does not correlate to the grades that he or she received, what value the degree? More important, the cheater automatically reduces the credibility and the value of every other degree awarded by the alma mater.

Cheating does not end at graduation. Today, resume fraud is a problem for many employers. Additionally, there have been media reports of police recruits fined for using crib notes on a CPR exam; paramedics studying for their emergency medicine test with a purloined exam; Coast Guard mariners cheating on their Federal pilot's license; athletic coaches altering students' scores. There have even been reports of teachers and principals cheating on their own exams, as well as manipulating answers to improve their students' scores.

Cheating is a problem we will continue to face. It undermines integrity and fairness at all levels. It can lead to weak life performance and corrode the merit basis of our society. No organization has yet taken responsibility for attempting to address this issue on a widespread basis. ETS has a responsibility to effectively communicate its position on cheating and the benefits of not cheating. It is time to address this issue on a national level.

All of our publics agree that test security is OUR (the testing company's) responsibility. and that we have a legitimate role in helping to address this problem. Our nonprofit mission compels us to address this societal problem with American Education.

Educational Testing Service is the world's premier educational measurement institution and a leader in educational research. ETS, which is a nonprofit organization, develops and administers achievement, occupational and admissions tests for clients in education, government and business. ETS annually administers almost 11 million tests in the United States and 180 countries.

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