A group of at least 20 Palo Alto High school Students has been cheating since sophomore year in courses including, but not limited to, Advanced Placement U.S. History, AB Calculus, Chemistry, Economics and Psychology, according to multiple sources. Now, as seniors, they are being accepted into first-rate colleges.
While the Paly community and administration are aware that multiple lower-scale cheating incidents occur every year, this particular ring poses a unique and far more intricate problem than the average cheating case. The level of organization, duration and sheer scope of the cheating that has taken place is unlike that of any group before, according to several teachers and former Paly students.
Assistant Principal Jerry Berkson confirmed that the administration has investigated rumors of an organized group of students cheating, but did not find any evidence to support these claims. An in-depth look into this ring unveils how they have managed to stay at large, the psychology behind academic dishonesty, why students don’t report cheaters and how these methods affect the future of cheating at Paly.
How it Works
Multiple students each memorize a couple of answers from a given test or quiz the first time it is given and then compile these answers on a Google Document, according to ring member Alex, whose name, along with those of many other students mentioned in this story, has been changed to protect his identity. This document is shared with other ring members who then memorize these answers and take the tests either in the Testing Center after skipping the class or during a later period. The students who memorize questions are dubbed ‘suppliers,’ ring member Christopher says.
According to Alex, many ring members cheat due to laziness, and are capable of getting similar grades if they put the work in.
“Cheating is just a shortcut to get a good grade without putting in [the] work,” he said in an online message. “Why study for three hours when [you] can talk with [your] friends about it for 15 minutes and get the same grade?”
Child Psychologist Cari Anderson says that the knowledge that others cheat may also be a factor.
“Many students perceive the academic situation as a competitive one, and students may feel that they need a competitive advantage,” Anderson says. “If they perceive others are cheating, they may feel that they need to also cheat in order to maintain their competitiveness.
For suppliers of the ring, the motivation seems more complex — why memorize answers and go through all that work if there’s nothing in it for you? While some may profit from the ring’s work in other classes, Alex speculates that others might just help out without reaping a tangible benefit.
According to Anderson, the closeness of students to their friends means that many might be willing to provide answers without receiving a direct benefit.
“Most teens feel very connected their peers, and are loyal to their group, and so may be willing to cheat to support their peers even with no personal benefit,” Anderson says. “Also, if teens feel disconnected from teachers and other adults in their lives, they may see it as an ‘us-versus-them’ situation, and be willing to help their peers ‘beat the system’.”
For Christopher, the reason is simple.
“They’re my friends,” he says.
Multiple students report parental support of academic dishonesty as another reason to cheat. Alex says that, while many parents are not aware of their children’s actions, he is aware of others who condone academic dishonesty. A student response to a Verde survey reinforced his perspective.
“I don’t think it’s worth it [to cheat], but my mother sure does,” one student wrote.
Anna, a Paly student who preferred to speak anonymously about the ring, echoed this sentiment.
“I know parents that would rather have their kid cheat and get good grades rather than not cheat and get bad grades,” she says.
Anderson notes that this parental support also has an impact on a student’s justification of academic dishonesty.
“Unfortunately, I’m not surprised to hear reports of parents supporting cheating,” Anderson says. “Many parents are very anxious for their kids to do well and believe that high grades are essential to their child’s future, and may justify the cheating for this reason. I believe this would [make] it easier for them [kids] to justify the cheating to themselves.”
This aspect of parental support leads to another group of questions concerning how societal values may have directed the moral compass’ of today’s teens.
According to Anderson, an individual’s values are developed through interactions with parents and, as one gets older, relationships with their peers and media influence. Multiple students report feeling that the Palo Alto community emphasizes outcomes over the learning process.
“I do think that many students at Paly place more value on grades over learning,” Anna says.
Junior Sylvia Targ believes the fact that students are willing to cheat to get into college is a by-product of societal reinforcement.
“Because capitalistic societies are inherently unfair, students are always taught ‘’life isn’t fair’’ and often people forget to add the ‘’but it should be fair,’” Targ says.
Junior Amy Leung also added that society’s emphasis on the outcome over the process may pressure students to take challenging courses and then cheat in them.
“Obviously we do need rigorous courses to prepare people who can help contribute to society,” Leung says, “but that does raise the point: Do we want moral people who will change society in a wholesome way or people who can do a lot by more convoluted means?”
For many Paly students, the potential repercussions of being caught cheating are a huge deterrent. A Verde survey of 167 students found that under normal conditions, 75.97 percent of those who answered the question, or 117 students, believe it is never worth it to cheat. However, when there is no chance of being caught only 76 students, or 48.7 percent, would say that cheating is still not worth it — a difference of 27.27 percent. According to Anna, most ring-members do not believe they can get caught, and so are probably more likely to be willing to cheat.
“The mindset of those entering the ring is that they can’t get caught,” she says. “They believe their system is foolproof.”
Alex says that looking at his report card and knowing he cheated to get those grades does make him feel guilty, but this is mitigated by the knowledge that other students cheat.
“I used to think like it was only the small group of my friends,” he says, “but a lot of people do it. … I think a lot of people just justify it to themselves by telling themselves that they aren’t the only ones who cheat, [but] it’s not something you can really rationalize.”
Not a Victimless Crime
No matter how students justify academic dishonesty, cheating is not a victimless crime, according to multiple sources.
“Blatantly asking other people for specific questions or stealing questions is one of the most unethical things you can do in high school,” Anna says. “When you cheat, you’re unfairly taking a university slot of another person who worked just as hard, if not harder, than you did.”
Aside from collegiate consequences, the number of students cheating alters grading curves. As many teachers use evaluation scores to self-assess their teaching and how well classes have learned material, cheating on such a large scale both hurts the grades and skews the learning experience of other students.
Anderson says that, while students may think they are benefitting by cheating, they may be hurting themselves in the long run.
“Cheating can leave a student with low self esteem, as they have not learned to meet challenges on their own and may lose confidence in their own abilities,” Anderson says.
According to Paly parent Joanne Garcia, the consequences of cheating are worse than the benefits.
“Cheating may get you the grade,” Garcia says, “but you’ll never be successful in the real world.”
Both Whitson and Anderson said that cheating in high school does not end there.
“Unfortunately it doesn’t stop with high school cheating,” Whitson says. “You hear these big cases in corporations … If you track that kid back, I bet they didn’t just start cheating there.”
Why Don’t Students Report Cheaters?
Survey results showed that 135 students, or 80.8 percent, reported feeling that there is an unspoken agreement between students not to tell on each other for cheating. Science teacher Erik Olah says that this culture must be fixed.
“I would hope that as a school we could come up with a way to make that . . . easier … for a student to feel like they could come and tell us,” Olah says. “Especially if you’re a student that’s not cheating … it’s not fair for you at all because you’re … working your butt off and . . . other people [are] taking shortcuts and getting grades that are just as good or better than yours.”
Paly student Robert, who reported a group of his friends for cheating, says that the amount of cheating that goes on compared to the number of students actually caught and reprimanded can persuade peers not to tell on cheaters.
“The two key components of justice is action and consistency,” Robert says. “A majority of students get away with cheating because no one reports them, so there’s always the issue that a few are punished while the rest are left alone for most of their high school career. So, although many are inclined to act, the lack of consistency in punishing cheaters causes them to rethink whether they should report or not, usually using the excuse of ‘Everybody cheats, so it’s no big deal.’”
Robert also says that it can be hard for students to keep anonymity when reporting cheating.
“Sometimes it’s hard to keep anonymity when you’re the only person, and the cheater knows that you know, who saw the act of cheating,” Robert says.
Robert says choosing to report a group of his friends for cheating was an extremely hard decision for him even though he knew it was the right thing to do.
“They were my friends and I didn’t want to have their eternal hate,” Robert says. “But I had other friends who were really struggling to do their best … and putting their best foot forward. I couldn’t allow others to devalue their hard work, so I made the decision [to report them].”
The Verde survey shows that students like Robert are narrowly a minority. Of the students surveyed, 55.4 percent said that they would not report a student who consistently cheated on tests and quizzes, and 50.6 percent said they would not report a group of students doing the same thing.
Though understandable, this culture of not reporting academic dishonesty hurts other students as well as the learning atmosphere of the entire school.
The Future of Cheating?
While the ring seems unique, multiple student sources say that at least one other ring exists in the senior class. Alex confirmed that there isn’t just one group of students cheating. Instead, friend groups will work together in any of the courses they share.
“It [the cheating ring] would be more [like] multiple groups, probably linked by like mutual friends,” he says.
At the end of the day, both Whitson and Olah agree that there isn’t that much that teachers can do to prevent the type of organized cheating that the ring does.
“The best we can do is try to make it fair for everybody,” Olah says. “[Cheating is] an unfair advantage, right? The kids who are trying their hardest and not cheating, you know it’s not fair to them to try to gauge them on the same sort of scale [as those who cheat].”
Disconcertingly, both Whitson and Olah say that the ring’s technique — remembering questions and answers instead of writing them down or taking pictures — might also make them impervious to persecution unless someone from within comes forward with proof or confesses to being a part of it. This means that students may now have access to a way to cheat without facing the consequences that normally go along with academic dishonesty.
Cheating has long been a sort of cat-mouse match, with students always utilizing new technology and methods, allowing them to stay one step ahead, Whitson says.
“They [erase] our calculators,” Christopher, the ring member, says. “Too bad they can’t erase our memory.”