Are we raising a generation of cheaters?

By many indications, it would appear so. We hear stories, seemingly on a daily basis, about kids displaying varying levels of academic dishonesty.

Just last week, three students at Palos Verdes High School made headlines for allegedly hacking into the school's computer network to change grades and find test answers to sell to classmates.

There have been incidents at local schools as well, including a recent situation at Corona del Mar High School involving a student who had reportedly bought test banks online that contained preapproved, standardized test questions used by teachers. The student then shared the information with others.

Nationwide research supports the notion that we are experiencing a cheating epidemic.

One shocking finding: Experts at the University of Connecticut's Neag School of Education report that nine in 10 students admit to having cheated at some point.

I called Jason Stephens, a UConn associate professor of educational psychology and one of the top authorities on the issue.

Since academic integrity was first studied in the 1960s, Stephens said, the rate of students who acknowledge they've cheated at least once has steadily risen, topping out in the 1990s at about 90%, where it has held steady ever since.

Stephens has found that this alarmingly high ratio holds true across social and economic strata. That is, students cheat whether they are rich or poor, black or white, top achievers or academic strugglers. The reasons and rate of incidents may vary, he said, but the proclivity to cheat is stunningly ordinary.

So, if cheating is as ubiquitous as bad cafeteria food, what are we doing wrong?

First, said Stephens, we must realize that academic dishonesty "is a symptom of something more systemic."

In one sense, cheating is widespread because it's easy. Thanks to the Internet, students have access to vast stores of information, which has made unethical behavior such as plagiarism that much more tempting.

The increased use of electronics in education has also made for some ethically gray areas, and has challenged the abilities of teachers and administrators to keep up. The test banks used by students at CdM High, for example, were readily available online and weren't labeled for teachers only. That was one of the reasons that Principal Tim Bryan decided not to discipline the students.

For now, Bryan said, "prudence tells us not to use the test banks anymore."

The incident reminds me of a scene from the movie "Broadcast News," when Holly Hunter shouts at TV newsman William Hurt that he crossed an ethical line.

"It's hard not to cross it," Hurt replied. "They just keep moving the little sucker, don't they?"

But a changing world in which new technologies and teaching methods challenge ethical boundaries offers only partial explanation. It doesn't explain why so many students know very well that they're cheating and do it anyway.

And that's where Stephens' notion of "something more systemic" comes in.

"People want to say that the kids today don't have any morals," he said. "But it's not just kids. The whole system is kind of wrong."

Part of the problem is that as a society we've become addicted to viewing academics as a competition to be won or lost, rather than an end in itself. When the game is more about looking for any advantage possible in order to hit certain numbers, rather than creating a deep and meaningful learning experience, cheating tends to emerge as an unhealthy side effect.

Indeed, teachers and school administrators haven't been immune to the temptation to bend the rules in today's pressure-cooker academic environment. Desperate to demonstrate academic gains through higher test scores, some educators have stooped to falsifying test results or giving students answers in advance.

Even the hallowed, ivy-covered reputations of our nation's colleges reek of cooked numbers and tainted rankings. Some colleges, for example, leave out the scores of athletes and other lower-performing groups in their published data on average SAT scores of the students they accept. It's a nifty trick designed to make a school appear more exclusive and academically elite.

So how do we fight against a culture that tells kids cheating is bad on one hand while setting the wrong example with the other?

In the classroom, Stephens said, teachers must be crystal clear, specific and consistent about which behaviors are acceptable. If collaboration on homework assignments is permitted, for example, the rules for doing so should be explicitly stated. If the use of outside material is allowed, teachers need to give clear instructions regarding how to credit the sources used.

Teachers must also be diligent in following through and monitoring student conduct; even something as simple as walking around the class during a test can have a positive effect, Stephens said.

Keeping students engaged through assignments that are challenging, but not unrealistically long and tedious, also helps. Kids tend to cheat less when they feel they have some choices, their concerns are taken seriously, and they're treated fairly.

As for parents, we need to overcome the "My kid would never … " syndrome and realize that no child is completely immune to the insidious temptation to cheat.

We must take a big step back from the overheated academic competition that sometimes compromises our judgment, and infuse in our kids the unshakable knowledge that a high number is never worth the cost of integrity.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.