Armstrong + millions of other cheaters = looks like we have a problem…

Jim Wollack, a professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, does a lot of research on cheating. He also runs a testing and evaluation service that includes a room where students take exams.

The space has glass walls, and cameras. Exams are proctored. The students know they are being watched. They also know they aren’t allowed to use cellphones — latter-day encyclopedias-cum-calculators and global “shout-out” devices.

Some do anyway.

“We have had students with cellphones ringing in their pockets … saying, ‘What cellphone? I do not have a cellphone,’ ” Wollack said. They know they’re being monitored, but they roll the dice because they know that without some illicit assistance there’s no way they’re going to pass.

They are academia’s Lance Armstrongs. And they’re more common than you think.

About 5 percent of students cheat on any given test by copying or using crib notes or cellphones or something else, according to Wollack. And although a smaller percentage are inveterate, practiced cheaters, a lot of students fall into the 5 percent at one time or another.

The International Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University in South Carolina has been surveying colleges and gauging cheating behaviors for 20 years, according to professor Teddi Fishman, the center’s director. It has consistently found that 25 percent to 30 percent of students across the country admit having cheated on a test. Half admit having plagiarized.

I know it’s nothing new. I once lived with a guy who hired somebody to take a test for him. I don’t know if he’s in prison now or running a company somewhere. The percentage of people who cheat has remained pretty steady over the past couple of decades. But the cheaters are getting more creative and sophisticated — and not just because of technology.

There’s a whole phenomenon of students using “study drugs” to get an unfair advantage by improving attentiveness or memory.

The dopes, it seems, are now the dopers.

In all types of schools — Ivy League or tech, secular or religious, public or private — about the same percentage of students cheat. The sad truth is that relatively few get caught, according to university disciplinary statistics. Basically, there are some really good, really committed liars out there, and not a whole lot of willingness to confront them.

“It is true that relatively few get caught and the ones that do get caught more often than not get off with, I don’t know if a hand slap is the way to describe it but, nothing terribly severe,” Wollack said. There is a fairly pervasive attitude among faculty, he said, that their job is to teach kids, not police them. Plus, reporting a cheater is confrontational and drawn out and, many professors rationalize, often not worth it.

The result is that cheaters not infrequently win, probably more often than we want to admit. And in what is often a zero-sum game for grades and jobs, the rest lose. The 5 percent elbow out the others, walk away with a better grade and a better transcript and even, if they are persistent enough, a better resume and job. In the end, they’re not just cheating on a test, they’re cheating whatever company is unfortunate to hire them before finding out they can’t write or figure out a simple equation.

“You are essentially falsifying a vita,” said Wollack. “You are falsifying a transcript.”

The honest kids, meanwhile, sit by and watch the jobs go to cheaters who got through school with an electronic encyclopedia in their pocket — and professors too important or cowardly to intervene.

[Mike Nichols is a former reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. This piece appeared in The Pioneer Press, St. Paul]


As always, posted for your edification and enlightenment by

NORM ‘n’ AL, Minneapolis



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