Perfection at the Expense of Integrity?

By N. M. Cedeño



The 2012 Josephson Institute survey on cheating in high schools found 51 percent of high school students admitted to cheating on a test. Another study found cheating to be common in highly competitive, economically well-off schools. In fact, where the pressure to achieve high scores is emphasized over mastery, students are more likely to cheat according to a 2018 study by Eric Anderman, et al. If you search for cheating scandals in the news, you can read about the many and varied ways students have found to cheat.

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When I was in high school, the only students who felt the need to cheat on tests or assignments were academically disinclined students who were trying to pass a class. These students were either lazy and didn’t want to do the work, or they weren’t particularly gifted when it came to academic work and needed all the help they could get to graduate. The students on the other end of the spectrum, the academically inclined students, had no reason to cheat. They could do the work quite well on their own. They didn’t worry about the need for a better than perfect GPA.

In the 1990s a long-fought lawsuit over college admissions procedures, Hopwood v. Texas, caused Texas public universities (and other states’ universities as well) to re-examine and redefine their admissions processes. In Texas, from that re-examination of admissions procedures was born the Top 10 Percent Rule.

Enshrined in law by the legislature (Texas House Bill 588) in 1997, the Top 10 Percent Rule, provides that if a student is in the top 10 percent of a Texas high school’s graduating class, the student will get automatic admission to a public university within the state. Over the years, this law had to be adjusted for the University of Texas at Austin, the flagship school of the UT system, because of the increasing number of applicants and how little room was left for admissions beyond the top 10 percent of students. Currently for the University of Texas at Austin, the standard is even more stringent. A student must be in the top 6 percent of a high school’s graduating class to receive automatic admission there.

The intent of the Top 10 percent Law was to increase diversity in state universities and to increase opportunities for students from smaller school districts. While the law has mostly accomplished that goal, it has had unintended consequences for academic integrity. The people who passed the law didn’t realize that the students seeking college admission would see being in the top ten percent as an absolute requirement, a goal to be achieved by any means necessary. As high achieving students fought to get into the top 10 percent of their graduating class, the upper limits of grade point averages were pushed higher and higher, until bonus points have become the norm and a 3.99 out of 4.0 GPA is no longer good enough. Students began to believe that nothing short of perfection would get them into the top 10 percent.

Parents got into the game, pushing their children to achieve those better than perfect grade point averages because automatic admission to the best in-state colleges depended on it. The pressure on students steadily increased. Suddenly, students were no longer cheating to pass classes. They were cheating to attain perfection: the perfect test score, the perfect grades, the better than perfect GPA. Every class and every test from freshman year to senior year of high school had to be perfect.

The pressure on the students in some highly competitive, high-performing schools can be unbearable. And while student mental health is suffering terribly, so is academic integrity. The drive to perfection has placed academic integrity on the chopping block. Plagiarism, group work to achieve perfect answers, trading of information on test questions, and various methods of discovering test answers ahead of time have become the norm in many schools. Use of electronic devices to cheat became widespread. The methods of cheating have become so prevalent that many students don’t even recognize them as cheating. It’s simply what everyone does to achieve perfection.

What harm is this doing to our society? When our highest scholastic achievers from our best schools, the kids who want to be doctors, lawyers, and engineers, have no sense of ethics or integrity, what kind of adults will they be? We need to return to an emphasis on learning and mastery of skills. We need to move away from a system that makes a numerical goal the only goal in the eyes of the students. Several studies by Dr. Anderman found students were much less likely to cheat in an atmosphere that emphasized learning, in classrooms where the teachers evaluated students on mastery of skills. We may not be able to eradicate cheating, but we can certainly make huge strides to reduce it.


N. M. Cedeño writes short stories and novels that are typically set in Texas. Her stories vary from traditional mystery, to science fiction, to paranormal mystery in genre. Her début novel, All in Her Head, was published in 2014, followed by her second novel, For the Children’s Sake, in 2015. In 2016, For the Children’s Sake was selected as a finalist for the East Texas Writers Guild Book Award in the Mystery/Thriller category. Most recently, she has begun writing the Bad Vibes Removal Services Series which includes short stories and the novel The Walls Can Talk (2017).


5 thoughts on “Perfection at the Expense of Integrity?

  1. Reminds me of those cheating scandals at our nation’s military academies that hit the headlines every few years. When I was in high school, I’d find myself glancing at a fellow student during a test, and I’d admonish myself, “Hey, idiot, don’t do that.”

    Liked by 1 person

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