"There are a lot of people who you perceive to be really well-off and smart, but the ways they get those grades are somewhat illegitimate," said Gunn High School senior Andrea Wong, managing editor of the school's student newspaper, the Oracle.
Stanford University's Program in Ethics in Society hosted its second panel on student stress and cheating last week in response to a growing number of university students cheating — not just on projects, but in a broader sense of cheating themselves out of learning the material. University lecturers Denise Clark Pope, Roland Hsu and Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann discussed the phenomenon at the high school and college levels, as well as its roots in society.
Pope, who is also the author of the popular book, "Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed-Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students," cited some staggering statistics: About 90 percent of today's high school students nationwide have copied homework and 75 percent have cheated on a test.
Among the Bay Area high school students Pope has polled, nearly 100 percent admitted to copying homework and 90 percent admitted to cheating on a test.
Honors students "believe they have more to lose. The grades mean more to them. They fear failing," Pope said. "They know it's wrong, but they feel they have no other option in their situation."
Rob Reich, a Stanford professor of political science and ethics in society who moderated the panel, said students today have a warped concept of what learning a subject means. They see learning as a way to earn something — whether it's a trophy, praise or admission into a top-tier college — rather than wanting to submerge themselves in a subject they find interesting.
This pressure and desire to achieve starts as early as the second and third grades, said Pope, when students begin to realize they are being compared to their peers. That is also the time when public events, such as spelling bees, are held and children realize that "winners" and "losers" are publicly recognized.
The concept to earn rather than learn becomes more complex when students enter high school. Hsu, a senior associate director and lecturer in undergraduate advising programs, said the concept could stem from the incredible praise high-school graduates receive when they gain admission into a high-caliber school, such as Stanford.
"What we're saying is that you're entering into a great journey. Some students are hearing, 'Congratulations on achieving the goal. There's only one last step here, and it's fulfilling a set of requirements and getting a degree,'" he said.
Wong, too, says it's the "top 5 percent" of the student body doing the most cheating. She published a column in Tuesday's Oracle, in which she detailed the cheating craze among the top students at her school.
"It's the desire to be the best of the best. If you lie about yourself, what are you gaining? People just seem to brush it off. I think I'm one of the few people who actually cares," she said, during an interview last week.
Wong said she has known students who purposely skip a class when a test is being given so they can then ask classmates what the questions were. The teens then make up the test on a different day knowing the answers. It's common, she said, for students to justify this type of cheating by saying it's impossible to study for all the high-level courses they're taking.
Another form of cheating is known as "padding" the resume or college application with activities the student has not truly participated in. This often manifests on club day at the beginning of each school year. Wong said students will sign up for clubs and never attend a meeting, but include the club on their college applications because their name is on the roster.
"It's really frustrating to see these students because you know they haven't done what they claim to have done, but other people buy their act," she said. "You could say it's a disadvantage if you don't because, by being honest, you're losing out on an opportunity you can gain by lying."
Experts say this type of cheating, or cutting corners, will have dire results.
"Students are mortgaging their adolescence in order to get into a place like Stanford," said Karlin-Neumann, senior associate dean in the university's Office for Religious Life, referencing a phrase she heard from Doug Daher, a psychologist at Stanford's Vaden Health Center.
"Doing whatever is necessary to win the college admissions game will break their backs and their spirits," she added.
This story contains 803 words.
Stories older than 90 days are available only to subscribing members. Please help sustain quality local journalism by becoming a subscribing member today.
If you are already a subscriber, please log in so you can continue to enjoy unlimited access to stories and archives. Subscriptions start at $5 per month and may be cancelled at any time.