Cheater, Cheater: Academic Dishonesty in the AP Community


Natalia Maverakis

All students are required to agree to the academic dishonesty contract, pictured here.

For the AP community at Vista, being the best spares no expense. Bright and ambitious, these students are at the forefront of the school’s most challenging courses—leading balancing-act lives of grueling homework, extracurriculars and demanding parents. Yet behind the pristine report cards an ugly truth rears its head: there is a reported cheating epidemic in the AP community.

One assumes that the best and brightest don’t need to cheat. They are the “smart kids,” are they not?

According to Lori Emmington, Vice Principal of Vista, the truth is quite the opposite.

“The students that care most about their grades we will normally find cheating. It’s the AP students who are bright and creative enough to really come up with some very innovative ways at cheating. They are very good at it,” she said.

On the lower end of the spectrum we have plagiarism. A B- for lack of creativity. Each student has a distinct voice, one that is recognizable by their teachers. Naturally, teachers can distinguish between your voice and the voice of a well-researched college professor whose thesis is linked to Google. Plagiarism is common and easy to spot.

On the higher end of the spectrum, the tactics are more cunning: micro-writing on water bottles, strategically placed Post-it notes on lab stations. A Japanese pen with a hidden slot. The means are endless.

Strangely enough, there is this perverse sense of indignation among ousted cheaters. In a recent AP Chemistry incident, one ousted student was very angry that the others did not defend him and deny the allegations. It is now evident that there are cracks in the community’s image of solidarity—friendships can be complicated if students are competing for the same slot at a prestigious university.  It’s a hard lesson to learn. Add in some obvious trust issues due to the cheating, and you have a class atmosphere that more resembles a survival game made of loose alliances rather than a safe haven.

Yet there seems to be this mutual disdain for the snitch. Even if one student disapproves of the cheating of another, seldom will you find them speaking up about it. Nobody likes a snitch—even Edward Snowden had his fair share of haters.

“If you cheat, you’re only cheating yourself,” is go-to mantra championed by adults and administrators. The reality is a lot more grim. A single instance of cheating can ruin the dynamics of an entire classroom.

“Kids don’t trust each other. They all sort of know it, they all are playing this game rather than trying to learn. If it was more like ‘we’re all in this together’ and ‘we’re all trying to get smarter’ and ‘we’re all trying to learn it’ would just create a great environment. Instead we have this cancer over here poisoning anything,” said Kelly Hillesland, who teaches in the AP Integrated program.

Hillesland elaborates that the cancer is more acute for the teachers than anyone.

“I find kids cheating and it sort of breaks my heart. I feel like if they won’t have the integrity for their class, I don’t want to teach them. I don’t care if they learn if they don’t care if they learn.”

For teachers, education should not be about trying to outwit the cheaters.Time focused on making retakes and revising curriculum takes away from valuable family time. The AP system in our school is already rigorous enough, but cheating complicates it even further.

“We put a lot of time and energy into our curriculum. We really want students to learn — that’s why they’re here,” said Kim Moore, an AP science teacher.

So, what is the administration’s response to all of this? Last year administration was hit with a realization: they needed to tackle cheating with a much more concentrated effort. The old policy was the standard for most high schools—get caught cheating and you immediately get a zero on the assignment. Simple and easy to enforce. Yet there was a glaring flaw: grades need to reflect whether a student has mastered the content area. Even if a student cheats, that student needs to prove they know the material. Denying retakes contradicts that.

The solution was to separate the academic from the behavioral. Punishment is important, but it should be completely separate from a student’s grade. Instead of punishing the student with a bad grade, the integrity issue would be handled separately, allowing the student to redo whatever assignment they cheated on.

Considered an effort to value learning over punitive measures, this policy is noble. Yet its effectiveness is debatable. Emmington admitted that the policy has not reduced the amount of cheating. Non-cheaters wonder if administrators will ever punish the cheaters, or is bad behavior simply getting rewarded?

When comes down to it, a small group of students are cheating within the AP community. These students are not evil, and they are not terrible people—they just feel like they have to get an A no matter what. Yet their behavior has disturbed their class environment, stressed out their teachers, altered curriculum and irritated their fellow AP students.

“It really is just the same, small group of people,” said Tamanna Annana, who has experience in the AP system. “You may be going around barely facing any consequences, but we, your peers, know who you are. We definitely don’t have the same respect for you.”

The bottom line is that the kids that cheat consistently are missing out on something crucial. They believe that they are using a shortcut, one capable of getting them the grades they could not get on their own. However, there is a satisfaction that comes from genuinely engaging the material and having that reflected in a good grade. Cheating robs a person of that. It takes away the integrity you are supposed to have, the belief in your own capabilities.

Hillesland puts it best: “You can’t be a doctor who cheats. You can’t be a lawyer who cheats. At some point, you have to show up on your own.”