Psssst...What's the Answer?
But not that unusual. The USC scandal—which Laurie's family has not commented on and which is now under investigation by university authorities—is merely an egregious case of what some educators are calling an epidemic of cheating at colleges and high schools across the country. Pushed by pressures to succeed and armed with the latest technology, a growing number of today's students seem to feel less and less reluctant to borrow rather than create. Last January, students at Saratoga High School in California's Silicon Valley were caught using a high-tech device to steal a teacher's computer password and access tests and answers stored on a computer. In the fall of 2003, a female student at Salem High School in Salem, N.H., was suspended for scanning report cards into a home computer system and changing the grades at a fee of $25 to $50 per report. In a 2002 campus survey of Texas A&M students, fully 80 percent admitted to cheating—a number that so shocked administrators they instituted a college-wide honor policy that flunks students for the first cheating offense and expels them for the second. "There's a lot more anxiety about getting ahead," says David Callahan, author of The Cheating Culture. "Here's the curious thing. Indicators of moral decline have stopped or been reversed on issues like drug use, teenage sexuality and crime. Not on cheating."
Experts point to a constellation of contributing causes, from the premium placed on brand-name colleges to the example of Enron and the blurring of right and wrong when it comes to things like illegally downloading music from the Internet. "Young people have seen their parents cheat on income taxes, they've heard about coaches who lied on their résumés, they know major athletes who have taken drugs to perform better," says Gregory Cizek, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill assistant professor who has studied the phenomenon. "There certainly isn't the stigma there once was." Nor do students today necessarily share their parents' definitions of what belongs to whom. Got homework? Outsource it! "These kids don't think of information as property," says Marcia Hilsabeck, a high school teacher from Round Rock, Texas. "They download music for free. They don't see anything wrong with downloading ideas."
In fact, downloading from the Internet is the most common form that cheating takes today. University of Texas authorities report that half its plagiarism cases involve students lifting information from a Web site without crediting the source. Any student can simply Google the words "term paper" and find millions of sites offering essays on any subject (see box). In an effort to combat the problem, educators at about 900 colleges and 3,200 high schools have turned to services like TurnItIn.com, which scans students' papers against 6 billion pages of archived documents. Evidence of copying shows up in seconds. At the University of Maryland last year, a group of instructors mounted a "techno sting," posting false answers to a 30-question accounting exam on a Web site. Twelve students were caught in the snare, including several who admitted using Web-connected cell phones to access the site during the exam itself.
Although teachers are undoubtedly becoming more proficient at detecting it—"We started looking for students with one arm on the desk and one under it [using their cell phones]," reports Justin, Texas, high school principal Jim Chadwell—banning technology in the classroom can create its own problems. Post 9/11, many parents insist their children carry cell phones so they can be easily reached. Last March, Coral Springs High School senior Ebony Jones, 18, was flunked on a Florida state test required for graduation after she was found with a cell phone in her hand during an exam bathroom break. She claims she was merely turning the device off and had committed no offense. "They automatically assume you're cheating," says Jones. "Kids should be allowed to have cell phones—what if something goes wrong?" Jones's family protested the decision, but school officials insisted the senior retake the exam.
Faced with a problem that many educators feel powerless to reverse, Anita Cava, codirector of the University of Miami's Ethics Program, believes ethics should be taught as early as kindergarten and suggests that a bit of high-maintenance, hands-on teaching, such as requiring outlines and drafts in advance of term papers, can also help. "These steps actually inspire students to get engaged in the work," Cava says.
Of course, students willing to cheat to compete can always opt out of such courses—or, as alleged in the case of Paige Laurie, simply hire someone to sit in for them. Elena Martinez, her former roommate turned accuser, says for three and a half years she "was reading her books and doing pretty much everything else for her," including impersonating Laurie in phone conversations with her professors. In response to the allegation, Laurie's family has maintained her academic records are "private." (PEOPLE was unable to reach them despite repeated attempts.) As for Martinez, who hopes one day to get a communications degree, she says her conscience eventually got the best of her. "It was wrong," she says of the alleged cheating. "I had to be true to myself and do the right thing."
J.D. Heyman. Frank Swertlow in Los Angeles, Michaele Ballard in Charlotte, Steve Barnes in Little Rock, Tom Duffy in Boston, Lisa Gray in Houston, Jodi Mailander Farrell and Sharon Harvey-Rosenberg in Miami, Denise Pang in San Jose and Alicia Shepherd in Washington, D.C.
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