The data about academic honesty in schools makes for grim reading.  Educational Testing Service data indicates 75-98% of college students admit to cheating in high school.  And the Josephson Institute of Ethics’ 2010 Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth, based on a survey of 40,000 high school students found 59.4% had cheated that year on a test or quiz and 80.6% had copied another student’s homework.

That same Josephson study, however, found that among the non-religious private schools  (n= 994) the rate of cheating fell to 33.4% and copying another’s work to 49.8%.  Is there something about private schools that might account for this greater integrity and how might that something be used to lower the rate of cheating even further?

Answering that question is made easier by our access to the results of the Independent School Health Check ( ISHC), a comprehensive survey of student behaviors and attitudes.  The Independent School Health Check is in its fourth year of service and has now been used to survey 31 independent schools and 14000+ independent school 9-12th students.  In addition to questions about academic honesty, the ISHC inquires about motivation, attitudes toward school, pressure, as well as a variety of risk and protective factors.  Thus, the questions about academic integrity can be examined in a larger context of student behavior and attitudes.  Our findings indicate four general behaviors and attitudes which increase the likelihood that a student will cheat or practice some other forms of academic dishonesty.  Those four are:

  • extrinsic motivation
  • poor connection to the school
  • negative feelings about self
  • risk-taking behavior

The ISHC questions about academic honesty are, as follows:

During the last 12 months, did you ever

  1. cheat on test or quiz
  2. do unauthorized copying of another student’s work
  3. allow another student to copy your work during a test or a quiz
  4. submit another’s material as you own-from another student, a book, or the internet-without giving credit.
  5. have other students ask you to submit your work as their own
  6. work with another student to complete an assignment when your teacher had instructed you to work independently
  7. let your parents or siblings complete part or all of your homework
  8. purchase or use an on-line essay

Of the 14,000+ independent school students in the ISHC sample, 20.6% reported that they had cheated on a test or quiz and 20.3% had copied another student’s work.

Overall, 50.1% of the students in the ISHC data had engaged in one or more of the eight different options offered in the survey.  Although these numbers are disturbing, they are far smaller than those of the national population.

In terms of the demographics, as we find about all the risk-taking activities, males are more likely to engage than females, thus 59.5% of those who cheat are male and 39.5% female.  The risk-taking by grade also follows what we know about the pressures many feel around college admissions; thus, there is a not particularly surprising peak in 11th grade.


  • 9th: 18.2%
  • 10th: 24.3%
  • 11th : 30.3%
  • 12th: 27.2%

Central to the mission of most independent schools is an interest in developing and celebrating a love of learning.  The ISHC develops a composite score around a series of questions about motivation for schoolwork.  Those primarily interested in education for its own sake, who enjoy learning, are classified as intrinsic; those primarily looking for rewards, college admissions, or satisfied parents are classified as extrinsic; a third group that exhibits equal portions of both motivations is described as mixed.  Of the intrinsic learners, 14.2% cheat, of the mixed 18.4%, and of the extrinsic 27.0%.   As can be seen in the chart below, those who are intrinsically motivated and thus most in harmony with the goals and values of the independent school are consistently least likely to engage in academically dishonest acts.  Likewise, those most aligned with values contrary to the school culture, the extrinsically motivated, are consistently most likely to engage in academic dishonesty.

According to the ISHC data, a very high percentage of independent school students take pleasure in their schools, feel supported by their teachers, enjoy what they are learning.  For instance, 86% say that “I belong,” 89.3%  “that teachers offer help if I need it,” 89% that “teachers are fair,” and 81.8% who like their subjects.”  As a group they also feel supported by their parents; 95% describe parents as interested and supportive.   These positive feelings about school and the adults in their lives apparently interact with the school’s culture and values to reduce academic dishonesty.

Using a composite score that assesses a student’s level of connection to the school, we find that 19% of those who have a high connection score cheat, 27.7% of those with a moderate connection score cheat, and 40.3% of those with a low connection score cheat.

Nevertheless, even among those students with very positive attitudes toward and experiences of their learning, there are still those who cheat.  For example, those cheating include 15% of those students studying 3-5 hours per night, 16.5% of those getting As, 14.8% who say they “enjoy testing their limits,”  14.5%  who are “generally interested in learning,” and 16.2% who say they are “on top of their schoolwork.”  In other words, it appears that a certain amount of cheating (roughly 15%) exists in spite of positive school attitudes.

Pressure on students is often blamed for a variety of ills, including cheating.  The data, however, does not support pressure as having a clear role.  In a composite score of pressure from parents, teachers, and self there was no appreciable difference between those who cheated and those who did not.  Even the students who described the cumulative pressure on them from their parents, teachers, and themselves as “extreme” had a rate of cheating of 20.3%, slightly less than the overall rate.  Interestingly, the highest rates of cheating were recorded for those who said they felt little or no internal pressure to succeed.

For those with negative views of education and their school—roughly 10-15%, the rates of academic dishonesty are much higher than the average.  Of those whose homework time is in the ½ to 1 hour range 26% cheat; for those who get Cs and Ds 50.9 % cheat; 36.5% of those who feel no internal pressure to succeed; 39.3% of those who think school rules are not fair; 35% of those who feel they don’t belong; 45.9% of those who say teachers do not offer help; 47.7% of those who think teachers are not fair; 52.1% of those who think teachers do not treat them with respect.  Similar levels are shown for those who are not interested in good grades, not interested in testing their limits, not interested in the subjects, and not interested in doing their best.  Students with negative attitudes are more likely to commit multiple acts of dishonesty, as reflected below.    The chart shows the differences in the extent of cheating depending on whether students think that their teachers offer help.

The third group consists of those with emotional and behavioral difficulties which put them out of step with the majority of independent school students.  That very mixed group includes those who feel lonely, don’t like themselves very much, are unhappy, or discouraged, and for them the rates of cheating are in the high 20%s and low 30%s.

The fourth group with a 30-50% rate of cheating are those who are taking other risks—tobacco users, heavy drinkers, marijuana users, the sexually active.  While only 15.2% of those who do not drink also cheat, 28.2% of the moderate drinkers, and 50.3% of the binge drinkers cheat.  The graph below shows the relationship between risk-taking and cheating.

Looking at the overall behavior of many students in many schools should not obscure that schools have very different rates of success with cheating.  Among the 31 schools of the ISHC database, the rate of cheating on tests and quizzes ranges from 7% to 50%, with a mean of 20.6%.  Nevertheless, independent schools as a whole do much better than public.

The data does suggest, however, that teachers who assume that the culture of the school and an emphasis on academic integrity will prevent students from cheating and, therefore, students can be left without proctors during tests and quizzes are being unduly optimistic.  The 15% that cheat despite their good feelings about education and the school provide cautionary evidence that one can be too trusting.

This analysis of the ISHC data indicates that students with intrinsic motivation, good connection to the school, good mental state, or low risk-taking are less likely to cheat or commit another form of academic dishonesty.  The findings support a hypothesis that the independent schools offer an environment that inhibits academic dishonesty and/or encourages academic honesty.  This initial descriptive analysis encourages future research to identify those protective factors.