Poll Raises Questions About Extent of Teen Cheating

By Catherine Gewertz — December 13, 2007 4 min read
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The results of a recent online poll are raising questions about the extent of academic dishonesty among the nation’s teenagers.

Nearly four in 10 teenagers who responded to the poll said there are times they feel they have to engage in a variety of unethical behaviors, including cheating on a test, lying, stealing, or behaving violently toward another person, to succeed in school.

The poll, released this month, was co-sponsored by JA Worldwide, which runs the Junior Achievement entrepreneurship program, and Deloitte, a global financial- services company based in New York City. It explored how young people’s willingness to break rules could shape their later conduct in the business world.

Cheating and plagiarizing were two of six unethical behaviors studied in the poll. And some experts were surprised by the findings in those two areas: Their own research shows far more students engaging in those behaviors.

The vast majority of respondents—three-quarters of the students—said they never felt it was “acceptable” to cheat on a test to succeed in school. Two in 10 said they felt it was acceptable to cheat “sometimes.” Three percent said they felt that way “often” or “always.” Fewer students felt it was OK to steal others’ work; 84 percent said it was never acceptable to plagiarize. Thirteen percent said it was acceptable sometimes, and 2 percent did often or always.

Asked why those actions might be acceptable, students commonly cited their own desire to do well in school, and parental pressure to excel. They said that helping a friend could make it acceptable to cheat, and not having enough time to do an assignment could help justify plagiarizing.

Downloading Music

When asked if they had actually cheated on a test in the last year, only 18 percent said they had. Nine percent said they had plagiarized. More admitted illegally downloading music (27 percent) or lying to their parents (44 percent).

Students were also asked how often they consider other rule-breaking acceptable. Only five percent said it is sometimes, often, or always OK to steal something from a store, far fewer than those who said it would be OK to illegally download music (47 percent), lie to parents or guardians (59 percent), or behave violently toward someone (23 percent).

Harris Interactive invited the 725 students, ages 13 to 18, to share their views online in September and weighted the results to approximate a nationally representative sampling. It is the fifth year of the study. Harris Interactive said no margin of error could be given for the poll.

The poll also examined a subset of respondents who described themselves as feeling “frequently overwhelmed” with pressure to succeed at school. It found those students slightly more inclined to find cheating and plagiarizing acceptable, and more likely to cite a personal desire to succeed, parental pressure, and lack of time as factors in deciding to do so.

John M. Box, JA Worldwide’s vice president of product development and support and a former schools superintendent, said the poll results point up the need for stronger ethics education in school. JA Worldwide offers units on business ethics as well as its Junior Achievement program.

“It’s discouraging that kids seem to feel that it doesn’t matter how they get from point A to point B as long as they get a good grade,” he said. “It’s important that kids understand that there are ethical decisions they are going to have to make all of their lives. The habits of making those decisions don’t come by accident. They need nurturing, and opportunities for kids to reflect on how they behave.”

But Laurence Steinberg, a widely known expert in adolescent psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia, said the poll’s value is extremely limited because of its design.

Limited Value?

Without knowing what teenagers meant by “sometimes,” there is no way to understand how frequently they are inclined to flout the rules, he said. He also noted that vast majorities of young people said they would “never” cheat (75 percent) or plagiarize (84 percent).

Michael S. Josephson, the founder and president of the Joseph & Edna Josephson Institute of Ethics in Los Angeles, said he was surprised that so few teenagers reported breaking the rules. His own organization’s biennial youth-ethics studies of a much larger national sample— 36,000 students—have shown higher numbers.

The 2006 Josephson Institute study found that six in 10 teenagers admitted having cheated on a test at school in the past year, and one-third had copied documents from the Internet. Eight in 10 had lied to a parent about something significant. Four in 10 said they believe people have to lie or cheat sometimes to be successful.

Even the more modest results of the JA Worldwide poll, though, are cause for alarm, said Mr. Josephson, because they show “a prevalent attitude of getting away with whatever you can get away with.”

Adults fuel the problem, he said, by doing too little to punish teenagers when they break the rules at home or at school, and dismissing the behavior as “kids will be kids.”

“All ethical scandals start with a little excuse-making,” Mr. Josephson said. “But what you allow, you excuse. Passive support of this is exactly the problem.”

Denise Clark Pope, a Stanford University researcher who studies the effect of school stress on teenagers, said that developmentally, teenagers find it difficult to see the long-term consequences of their choices. They respond instead to the immediate pressures to succeed.

“It’s not that they don’t know right from wrong,” she said. “It’s that they see themselves as having no choice. They feel they cannot do what is right, given the larger consequences of their future. They’ll say, ‘It’s not cheating, it’s survival.’

“Some of it is a message coming from parents,” she said. “Kids tell us, ‘My parents would be very upset to know I cheated, but would be more upset to see me get a C.’ ”

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A version of this article appeared in the December 19, 2007 edition of Education Week as Poll Raises Questions About Extent of Teen Cheating


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