KANSAS CITY, MO. High school students cheat. Not all of them, of course, but many. And those who do think it’s no big deal.
That’s what a national researcher found, and that’s what former biology teacher Christine Pelton says she saw when 28 of her 118 sophomores plagiarized on a botany project at Piper High School in western Kansas City, Kan.
“I think what happened was they kept putting this off,” Pelton said. “They procrastinated and they panicked.”
Those are excuses students often give for cheating. But the core reason for a perceived national increase in cheating is an overall decline in personal integrity, with some adults setting poor standards, say researchers and those who deal with ethical issues.
From would-be Notre Dame coach George O’Leary, who lied on his resume, to the Enron scandal to the plagiarism accusations against historian Stephen Ambrose, examples are easy to find.
“If you look at the sports world and the business world and the political world and your personal world, you see a whole lot of cheating going on,” said Phil Anderson, director of the honor system at Kansas State University.
“It’s in the culture … and students think they can get away with it.”
The Piper school board’s handling of the incident there has struck many as a second assault on integrity, perhaps more egregious than the plagiarism itself.
Pelton resigned the day she was directed to change the way the students were graded, an act that allowed many to pass the course. She cared about her students, she said, and didn’t want to leave.
“But I felt I had to do what was right,” she said.
The issue attracted about 100 people to the school board meeting last week, and half a dozen addressed the board. Those speakers were divided over whether the board had done the right thing, and applause from members of the audience suggested that the crowd was similarly divided.
None of the board members responded to the parents’ comments, but the superintendent said he had contacted the University of Kansas for information on how to better address plagiarism issues with students.
Cheating is on the rise, researchers believe.
It’s hard to know for sure because few comparable studies have been done over the decades. But a study conducted in 1993 by researcher Don McCabe of Rutgers University found that cheating at colleges had doubled since the early 1960s.
A study released last year found that cheating was more prevalent in high schools than colleges.
Seventy-four percent of 4,500 high school students randomly surveyed in the 2000-2001 school year reported one or more incidents of serious test cheating, said McCabe, who also conducted that study.
In comparison, he said, 45 percent of 763 college students he surveyed in 1999-2000 reported one or more such incidents.
The numbers on plagiarism? Fifty-two percent of the high school students reported copying a few sentences from a Web site without citing a source. And 15 percent of high schoolers said they had submitted a paper obtained in large part from a term paper mill or Web site.
The Internet has made it easier to cheat, McCabe said. It also has raised new questions for students.
“Clearly a lot of them are confused about what I describe as cut-and-paste cheating – using bits and pieces without citation. In their opinion, if it’s on the Internet, it is public information and doesn’t need to be cited.”
Parents of Piper students who were accused of plagiarism told the school board Dec. 11 that they did not believe their children knowingly plagiarized on a project about leaves indigenous to Kansas.
Several parents who did not want to be identified told The Star that their children may have picked up “a sentence here or there” – as one parent put it – without proper attribution. But they thought the punishment, a zero for the assignment, was too harsh.
“The bottom line is – with these kids not knowing how to cite and footnote – we felt that the description of plagiarism was not made clear to them prior to the project being done,” said the parent of one student accused of plagiarism.
The parents are not condoning cheating, she said, but they think the situation “should have been used as a teaching opportunity” for the students.
The project was worth 50 percent of the course grade, so a zero resulted in a failing grade for the course.
Pelton, however, said that each of the 28 students she accused of plagiarism copied much more than one or two sentences.
“Some of them didn’t even take their own leaf measurements, because when I measured their leaves they were completely off,” she said. “I went to the Web site where they copied from and (their project) showed the exact measurements that the Web site was giving them.”
Pelton said she asked the principal and the superintendent for their opinions on whether the projects were plagiarized.
“Both of them had to agree on it before we said it was plagiarized,” she said.
A senior at Piper High who completed the leaf project two years ago said she thinks most students understand they can’t copy someone else’s work.
“I think it’s pretty obvious how much you can and can’t take,” said Courtney Ruth, 18.
The parents of the accused students are probably just having the “natural parent instinct” of trying to keep their children from looking bad, she said. “But in turn it’s made our entire school look bad.”
Students tend to believe there are degrees of plagiarism, with some instances more serious than others, said McCabe, the Rutgers professor.
“I think it’s up to the teachers to help them understand,” he said.