Are letter grades the reason teens cheat?

This is a guest post from ATHM reader Candida Gazoli.  While it’s a bit off the beaten path from our usual fare, I liked the essay and decided to share it.  Thanks Dida!

“So why did you cheat, Lila?” I asked.  Lila is an A student and a soon-to-be senior at Palo Alto High School.“To get a good grade,” she confessed.“How would your parents react if you told them?” (Both parents are graduates of a prestigious Ivy League university and both are high-earning professionals in Silicon Valley.)“They’d be shocked.”“Did you cheat in several classes or just one?”“A few,” she admitted, her warm brown eyes low and lost.“And do you remember anything that you learned in those classes?”  “No, not really… except maybe how to cheat.”What are the Lila’s of Silicon Valley telling us a about their world and the letter-grading system?  What has the need to get an “A” done to them?  Is it, in fact, the prime reason they cheat?  Are college admission offices really seeing then the truth on high school transcripts and SAT scores or are they often evaluating a carefully concocted lie?  If so, what are parents, schools and higher education doing to change the status quo?Questions like these have been tapping me on the shoulder ever since I read Denise Clark Pope’s book, “Doing School.”   Her book resonated with me, especially after I overheard another teen last year (also an A student and a top athlete) casually talking about how he’d cheated his way through various classes in high school that he thought were a waste of his time.  He and one of his college grad friends were rapping about how dumb you’d have to be not to cheat if a class was boring or you didn’t like the teacher.So, last month when Stanford Law School announced that they are doing away with the traditional A-F grading system (following the lead of other elite law schools like Yale and UC Berkeley), I decided to take a closer look at the letter grading system at the high school level in our community and even at the university level.   Innovative undergraduate programs atschools like MIT, Reed College in Oregon, Evergreen State College in Olympia Washington, and New College of Florida (NCF), as well asUC Santa Cruz,have also incorporated broader grading systems which include individualized performance evaluations, with the focus off grades and back on a more personalized approach toeach student’s learning experience.Will Stanford Law’s decision influence Stanford’s undergrad program to take the focus off grades?  Arethese ‘out-of-the-box’ approachesworking?  Are students really challenged and motivated?  Could they actually learn more and get more out of college without receiving or knowing what letter grade they were given by their teacher?Now that my own daughter is about to start Kindergarten, dangling her innocent feet into the icy cold waters of the American public educational system, I have finally decided to begin my quest to unearth the answers to some of these questions.   I am beginning by interviewing teens at Palo Alto High and Los Altos High, and even Stanford freshman.   I’d like to hear from them first.  What do they think about what Stanford Law has recently done to improve learning and take the focus off letter grades? What changes would they make at their own schools to improve how they’re graded and evaluated?  What would they tell their parents if they could about the pressure they’re under to academically achieve? What if they came clean about cheating, what would actually happen to them? Has cheating, in fact, reached epidemic proportions because of the need for the Almighty A? I recently spoke with author, Denise Clark Pope PhD, a leading researcher and lecturer on the subject of pressure to compete and achieve in high school.  Her book “Doing School,” How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students, openly talks about how we have created a culture and an education system where kids are doing whatever it takes to get the grade and win the attention and the recognition of their parents and teachers, but at the cost of their own well-being and self-respect.  Dr. Pope is also a lecturer at Stanford University School of Education, where shefounded and directs the SOS: Stressed-Out Students project, a national research and intervention project for K-12 schools.Because her work has inspired me to explore the topic more closely, I wanted to ask Dr. Pope’s reaction to Stanford Law’s move to take the emphasis off grades and place it back on learning.“Do you think that the law school’s decision will truly impact or changestudents’overall learning experience?”“Students who are grade-oriented will most likely continue to try for the Honors or “H” status because that’s theirmindset, but many students just want to focus on the work instead of the grade,” she replied.“Will Stanford University follow suit and change their grading system?”“I know that a few folks have suggested doing what MIT has done – not grading first year students or at least not grading the first quarter of work.  The idea being that it is such a big transition from high school, not wanting to overload incoming freshman with grading anxiety but rather saying, Here, let’s get your feet wet first.”In the final pages of “Doing School,”Dr. Popespeaks about the need to listen to high school students before we can even begin to change or impact their education successfully.  If we don’t listen to teens and their ideas about how to improve their learning experience, how will we begin to understand how to reach each student emotionally?  And without reaching students emotionally, truly understanding what they care about, there is little hope for reigniting their passion for learning and discovery. There’s no telling how long cheating hasbeen going on in the classroom.  In 2005, a Duke University study revealed that 75% of all high school students cheat in the United States and if you include copying homework, it climbs to90%.   Last year, in Reagan McMahon’s article “Everybody Does It,” (SF Gate, September 9, 2007),Dr. Pope states that 80% of honors and advancedplacement students cheat on a regular basis because they have more to lose if they don’t cheat.So, how does Silicon Valley rate? Have we here in the privilegedbackyard of Stanford University done a better or a worse job at over-loading and stressing out our youth? What would students really say about cheating to get the grade when they aren’t being threatened or judged by an authoritative adult in their lives?  Dothey feel it violates their integrity or self-respect?  A little?  A lot?  Can they articulate that yet or does that come years later, after they’ve received their college diplomas by hook or by crook.  I hope to share my findings in the coming monthsLet’s step back a bit, though, to 1983.  Twenty-five years.  (Okay, that’s quite a few steps back, which would make me now… around … yeah, there’s the reason I never really embraced math.)It was a pivotal time, not just in my lifeand my education, but also for technology and the worldwe are today.  1983 was the year I would graduate high school, the year before my father would die, the year before Steve Jobs would presentto the world the first desktop computer – an amazing 9” screened, black and whiteApple Macintosh.  I wouldn’t know it yet, but I would do the same thing at the University of San Francisco that Steve Jobs did after his first semester at Reed College.I would leave college and begin to love learning all over again.Jobs would eventually become one of my heroes, a self-directed innovator who saw a vision of the future because of a profound love fordiscovery in the present.Twenty-five years ago when I was a senior in high school, it would have been me, instead of Lila, giving the same answers to those questions.  It’s no big secret – cheating in school and lying to your parents strolled hand in hand in my generation, too.  But it seemed, how should I say… much more sophomoric, especially when Ferris Bueller and Tom Cruise in Risky Business made lying to your parents and teachers look so fun and glamorous, particularly in your skivvies. Like Lila, though, I also had very academically successful parents.  The expectation in households like Lila’s and mine were set by our parent’s achievements – and withhigh achievements comes high expectations andinsurmountable pressuretocompete.However, in the Eighties, it was generally the kids who never did well (mostly “the jocks” in my high school) that were cheating off the kids who studied hard and always did well (“the geeks,” as it were).  Today, it is the smart kids who are leading the way, caught up in a broader spectrum of pressure from home to do well at everything – academics, sports, social-clubs, music, band… and the list/beat goes on. During the Eighties, teens fell into clearer categories than they do today, and it was the students mostly, not their parents, pushing for more extra-curricular activities.  Parents today know that leading universities want youth who are unique, students who stand out both academically and socially, and that’s why they’re pushing their children harder.  Is this healthy? Is it helping their kids?  Maybe… maybe not.  What would parents do differently if they knew how much their kids cheated to keep up?  What would parents say if they knew that cheating is now considered among their kids to be a very helpful, time-management tool?Eleven out of the twelve teens I’ve interviewed so far admitted to cheating or helping others cheat.  Each said that the number one reason they do it is because of pressure from their parents to get a good letter grade.  The second reason, they said, is because they don’t have enough time to study and cheating makes their life a lot easier and manageable.  The third reason is pressure from friends who may drop them socially if they don’t let them copy their homework or cheat off their test.Do they consider cheating to be wrong or a big deal?  Not really or at least not until they get caught.  But that almost never happens.  Why is that?  A seventeen year old from Los Altos High put it this way, “Because the people who do it are really smart and good at it.”I was particularly bad at cheating in high school, which gives you a fairly good idea of my academic skill-set, although, I did try… many times.  I was no different than any of the teens I’ve interviewed.  I just don’t remember cheating being ‘no big deal’ or ever casual.   What I remember was almost throwing up during my SAT exams, doubled-over in pain, thinking that my whole life and future teetered on the outcome of those English and math scores.  The fear and pressure that consumed me as I walked into that auditorium flapping with ‘Flock of Seagull’ haircuts came from parental pressure to succeed academically, but it also came from a strong desire to impress my parents and family to gain their respect and attention.  Yes – sad, ironic and true.Coming from a strong academic family, letter grades and SAT scores were everything (both my parents were educators, however neither of their parents went much past the 4th grade in school).  Because my parents couldn’t afford private university for their eight children on a teacher’s salary, academic scholarships were expected.   So, the thought that I might just be an average student with a creative, artistic streak was not an idea that was easily entertained or accepted.  “Average” and “creative” were code words for “failure” – not just for me but also for my parents.  And talking about happiness without academic success was just not in my parent’s vocabulary or probably in any book or thesaurus they may have consulted on the subject.  Academic achievement meant better opportunities in their generation.  It meant better pay, better jobs, better houses, better appliances, better cars, better families and better children… and, of course, it still does.  However, being better doesn’t actually mean happier – not then and certainly not today.Had I just been able to make out the answers on Lawson’s test form (Lawson was my calculus-loving, former 3rd grade boyfriend, who had a functioning car and offered to drive me to take the SATs) I would have whole-heartedly cheated that day.  Without a doubt, I would have cheated and lied my way into a bright and shiny new college education.  Fortunately for me, though, little Lawson turned out to be a 6’5 giant at seventeen, and his exceptionally long basketball arms blocked all the answers I so desperately wanted to call my own.Thanks to Lawson and his gifted arms, I didn’t get into Stanford like one of my older sisters who was awarded a full academic scholarship.  No, my path to learning and education would be different – maybe even more challenging and gratifying than studying at an elite university. (If you’d like to read more about Dida Gazoli’s research findings regarding the letter grading system in Silicon Valley and what teens are saying about it, plus “cheating to get the grade,” stay tunedfor next month’s column or contact Dida at


  1. Ugh
    Posted July 23, 2008 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

    Dida needs to change her color scheme; it’s practically impossible to read the site.

    You should fix the formatting here because it’s totally impossible to read the post.

  2. Posted July 26, 2008 at 2:54 am | Permalink

    Oy, WordPress must have eaten the line breaks.

    While some colleges are taking out the letter grade, you don’t see high schools doing it. Why? Because the students can’t apply to college without letter grades. But what about people applying to grad school? They still need letter grades. The letter grades will not go away entirely unless the system is changed entirely. Unless you want to base all admission decisions on test scores (which many countries do), letter grades are necessary.

    What really needs to be taught being true to ourselves. I have gotten good grades before because the professor was really bad, and pretty much the whole class didn’t know the materials, so the curve favored the good test-taker. While it looked good, I knew that I didn’t learn much. That I can’t lie to myself about. I think what needs to be taught is the acknowledgment of the truth. You either learned or you haven’t. Now how can that be accomplished? I don’t know.

  3. admin
    Posted July 27, 2008 at 8:18 pm | Permalink


    I actually think that it makes a lot of sense to rely solely on test scores and teacher recommendations. This would serve the admirable purpose of unbundling college admissions from high school grades, allowing people to better focus on learning.

    Unfortunately, the wisdom that you learned is something that each person has to realize for him or herself. The best we can do is to provide teens with better role models and mentors, and hope for the best.

  4. Posted August 10, 2008 at 1:44 am | Permalink

    Teacher recommendations introduce a much greater possibility of biases. I recall a study where an ok looking child’s picture was attached to a description of a child’s behaviour, then shown to a teacher who rated them. Later, the same description was attached to the picture of a good looking child and the teachers rated these children as brighter, more sociable and better behaved. And that’s just one of the various fallacies that affect human beings.

    Personally, I believe a better sense of character needs to be instilled. I believe kids/people need to have a sense of character strong to both a) not cheat and b) be willing to say no if they’re taking on too much.

    That said, the pressure these kids are under has to be reduced, and both parents and teachers have to come together to do that. Kids after a certain age also have to help. Honestly, if I could, I’d make taking a year off during your high school and/or college mandatory. I did after my first year of uni and it was the best thing I ever did. It’s not just the extra time, but the psychological burden of school is removed.

    Of course, as always, I’m prescribing out of my autobiography.

  5. Someone Last
    Posted December 2, 2008 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    Fuck this, kids cheat cause of parent pressure!!!

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