Cheating is a Symptom and not the Problem

By Charley Cass posted 06-28-2018 09:32

My daughter plays travel softball and I take some comfort in being out of town for tournaments.  I get to "check out" as far as being the principal goes.  Nobody knows who you are in these distant lands and parents and their kids speak freely.  There are lots of times where you are just waiting for the next game to start and you sit in the stands and listen to how the kids talk and act.  This is the only time I get to be undercover and do real recon on what's current with kids.  Often these kids come from various states and they don't know me from Adam.  This season I have overheard a few conversations about cheating in class on tests or homework.

Of course I cannot react to this.  I may blow my cover and ruin it.  Sure, I am immediately aggravated by the discussion, but I had to talk myself down and consider a few realities.  The reality is that cheating has gone on forever.  Kids used to cheat off of me all the time.  I wore glasses so people thought I was smart.  This does not make it okay, but lest consider that due to the need to make good grades, students will do what it takes to get there.  Some call this cheating, some may call it innovation but we have to face some facts.  Students see cheating not as wrong, but as a means to an end, to pass or to get ahead for example.  According to one recent survey of middle schoolers, 2/3 of respondents reported cheating on exams, while 9/10 reported copying another's homework.  Cheating is not just a behavior for the "bad" kids, the "good" kids do it too.  It used to be more common among boys but now at the college level, there is no gender difference for cheating.  Think back to meeavesdropping on the out-of-state softball players.  All were girls and all reported that they made good grades every year.

Maybe the dependency on grades is the real issue.  I remember reading a student blog once that really opened my eyes.  She stated that she used to love school in the elementary grades because it was always about what she was learning.  When she entered junior high and high school, there was an insistence on getting good grades and having a high GPA.  She stopped liking school at that point.  (I apologize for not sharing this post but I could not locate it.)  We tie so much of a kid's life to their grades.  Participation in extra curricular activities, college admissions, awards and a lot of times parental approval all get tied to a student's grades.  This causes stress for our kids and it does lead to behaviors like cheating. 

Another reality is that grades often do not measure what a student can do.  When I am working with students to help them raise their grades, our strategies more often are targeted at changing habits in the classroom and do not aim at resolving some cognitive or skill deficit.  Let's be honest with each other, grades mostly measure compliance and not what has been learned.

So what is the alternative to letter grades?  The brave have already tested the idea of standards based report cards.  This is the practice of not assigning a letter grade but reporting what learning standards students have met or are still progressing towards.  All of us in the education field know this has caused some parental push back.  Traditional letter grades are what we have known since we can remember.  Parents often report that they cannot understand the standards based reporting system and push their districts to go back to letter grades.  Another argument is that colleges do not speak the language of standards when it comes to admissions.  Some districts are reporting both in an effort to win their communities over with the idea.  Schools have accepted that letter grades are no longer a good measure and see the implications of student stress, but it is very difficult to convince others.

While cheating and academic dishonesty are easily agreed upon as wrong by adults, kids often see nothing wrong with it.  It is a means to an end for them but a symptom of a larger problem.  We either need to find a way to make letter grades meaningful or find a way to report student learning that will change the culture around letter grades.  The pressure of grade performance is becoming too much for kids.  So I challenge educators and parents alike to answer the following: what is the biggest predictor of success, a high GPA or a love of learning?  I know how I will answer that, but can we all ever get to the same place?