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The Cheating Dilemma – Why so many students cheat at prestigious high schools

With the rise of social networking, smartphones, iPads, and other gadgets given to us by the technological advancement, cheating has become a prominent issue and an increasingly difficult issue to police. In a recent cheating scandal at one of the famed exam schools in New York City, Stuyvesant High School busted a cheating ring with hundreds of students involved. This unraveled during the Regents tests,  standardized tests set forth by New York State that every student must pass to receive their diploma. A junior at the school, Nayeem ­Ahsan walked into the Physics regents, confident and calm. He took the exam and finished early – and then proceeded to text as well as send pictures to hundreds of students on his “listserv” of every single answer of the physics exam. His goal: to help his friends in subjects that he is strong in, in return for help on subjects he is not. 2 days later, he was busted by the principal of the school and his phone confiscated. What they found, inside his phone, was all the students, records, as well as tests he cheated on. Turns out, he’s been in this cheating “system” since Junior year and has become the point man for many students looking for a little extra “help” on the next exam. In a recent interview with Nayeem ­Ahsan, he justified his actions and said that the cheating was out of survival – in a school of smart students and selective slots for the most prestigious colleges, many are willing to do whatever it takes to edge out the next guy. The students see cheating as a “rebellion” towards the toxic standardized-testing based curriculums and classes that plague the City’s schools. The intense competition makes many willing to take the risk to cheat: if it means a higher grade.


This situation can be modelled and framed in the context of game theory. Let’s take for example two students and friends at Stuyvesant. They are in the same class and there is a upcoming test. Both students know the material – but not extremely well. If they simply take the test, they’ll both get an 85 or so. But if they cheat, they can probability get a 95.

Student A \ B Cheat Not Cheat
Cheat 95, 95 95, 85
Not Cheat 85, 95 85, 85

This would roughly model the payoffs of the students. If they both do not cheat, they will both get a 85. But if they both cheat, they can raise their grade in some way. However, this does not factor in issues like morality, ethics, and the risk of being caught – where the payoffs would be negative, due to a zero on the exam, as well as being written up and the record showing on your transcript. But, in a school where many students cheat, including your close friends as well as “competitors”, suddenly, the issues like being caught, morality, and ethics, have very little weight if at all in the payoff matrix. Furthermore, this creates a system of positive feedback – where the first time a student cheats, gets away with it, and gets a higher grade, induces the students to take bigger risks and continue to cheat in the future. At first this might be a feeling of luck and a dopamine fueled feeling. But after many iterations of this behavior, the student becomes to believe this is the norm and only way to go through classes, and he/she has more or less acquired a new skill. Now, if no one else cheated in the school and the competition as well as selection process for colleges was less number and test based, a student might reconsider his or her choice for cheating. But in a public selective exam school where low risk means big payoffs in a number and testing based selection process, cheating runs rampant. Perhaps, we can all hope that in the distant future, colleges and schools will place less emphasis on a new digits on a piece of paper, and more on the actual student.

From NYMag, “Cheating Upwards. Stuyvesant kids do it. Harvard kids do it. Smart kids may especially do it. But Why?”


Stay frosty.




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