SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The honest truth about cheating in high school lurks just below the veneer of virtue: A whole lot of students do it, regularly and with impunity.
The Leland High School students disciplined last week in a test-stealing scandal differ from their high school peers around the Bay Area in one important respect: They got caught.
At least eight seniors and one junior at Leland High in San Jose copied from stolen tests, school officials say, and have been suspended. One faces expulsion.
Cheating is as old as testing, but among youths it is evolving in its ubiquity and apparent acceptance. These days, the Internet makes cheating easy. Indifferent teachers make it possible. And students at competitive schools like Leland say the workload and expectations often make the practice necessary.
"It's pretty much normal that kids are cheating on tests," senior Amanda Cendejas said about students in her upper-level classes at Leigh High School in San Jose.
And, students around the Bay Area said, they openly share exam and homework answers online and don't fear repercussions. "They don't care if they post on Facebook because the teacher is not on it," Cendejas said. "Not many of us would rat anybody out."
A survey conducted last year in a Midwest school district found that 53 percent of high school students admitted to cheating on tests, 62 percent turned in work done by others and 72 percent admitted working with classmates on homework when collaboration was not permitted.
Such numbers have remained high over time, said Don McCabe, the Rutgers Business School professor who conducted the survey of 4,800 students. A nationwide survey in 2010 indicated that two-thirds of high school students admit to cheating in some form.
Local schools have found similar results: At Amador Valley High in Pleasanton, 83 percent of students said homework is copied often or even very often, Principal Jim Hansen said.
"Students have a different view of what's OK," McCabe said. With many opportunities to draw on classmates and the Internet for answers, "students say to me: Why shouldn't I use it?"
McCabe, who has studied cheating for 20 years, said the number of self-reported cheaters is decreasing at the college level, but he thinks that merely reflects the increasing number of students who think there's nothing wrong with borrowing work. "They honestly feel they're not cheating. The student definition is changing."
Students give various rationalizations for cheating -- lack of time, dislike of busywork, high stakes for success, clueless or unreasonable teachers and simply an opportunity to be seized.
At San Jose's Lynbrook High, the workload is hard and heavy, students say. And one freshman, who didn't want her name used, said teachers expect A's. "Therefore, we're compelled to cheat."
In the school's online magazine, Aletheia, another student wrote anonymously: "Honestly, who hasn't cheated before? I've done it so much that I don't feel bad about it anymore. I don't feel good, but I no longer hate myself for cheating."
Some cases aren't clear-cut. In most honors and upper-level courses, students form Facebook groups to share information. "Even students not trying to, end up cheating in ways," said Jenna Gavenman, a sophomore at Los Altos High. A student might be looking for help with one question, but find others are sharing answers to everything. "I definitely think it does make it harder for kids who don't cheat."
In some ways, Facebook is one big study group.
"It could almost be tutoring, like walking somebody through the answer," said Andy Ball, 18, a senior at Alsion Montessori in Fremont.
Sometimes, said Rich Kitchens, a principal of another high-performing school, Piedmont High, it's not easy to draw the line between working together and copying. "We teach collaboration," he said.
At Lynbrook, senior Yasmine Mortazavi's friends who take an AP math class report that "almost every day, there's one person who did the homework and everybody else copies."
Even cases that seem obvious to some are gray to others. A Palo Alto High student who got paid $60 to do other students' physics projects last year said he felt both gratified and justified. He not only wired a model house, but "I showed them how to do it." In contrast, he said, another group's project was done by one student's father, and they understood nothing. "I feel I helped them in a legitimate way."
For teachers, the challenge is to outsmart bright minds adept at outfoxing the system. "For me, it becomes a game to create an assignment that can't be easily copied online," said Leigh High School English teacher Beth Nakamura.
But discerning literary symbolism or mastering the Krebs cycle isn't always important to students; they're looking at the endgame: college.
"Going to school is just about getting good grades," a Leigh junior said. "I'm filling my brain with meaningless stuff just to get into college."
A fellow student, a junior, agreed about the drive for a high grade-point average. "If you don't go to a good college, you are not going to do anything in life," she said. "I cheat, and I don't feel bad about it."
The rate of high school cheating nationwide is marginally increasing, said Richard Jarc, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Josephson Institute, which seeks to improve the ethical quality of society.
"No one seems to be saying, 'Oh my god, we have to do something about it,' " Jarc said. "It's pretty scary. These kids are going to school to become doctors, lawyers and bridge builders.
"I don't want one of them to be my bridge builder or my doctor."
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