THE HBO movie "Cheaters" tells the true story of Chicago high school students and a teacher who used a stolen test to win a tough academic competition.
The cheaters didn't win in the long run. They were caught after one participant confessed in a school essay. But the film projects the students as heroes whose ignominious acts were considered justifiable because people break rules all the time to get ahead on the job and in business.
But cheating is never right. It corrupts systems and the soul. And it is unconscionably wrong when a teacher or principal urges impressionable students to behave dishonestly and immorally.
So it was deeply troubling to learn that Karen B. Karch, principal of Potomac Elementary School in Montgomery County, was charged with encouraging students to cheat last month on state tests and even helping them to do it. Ms. Karch resigned after the charges, and a fifth-grade teacher was suspended pending the outcome of a county school system investigation.
This happened at a school that boasts some of the highest MSPAP scores.
That sounds odd, but anecdotal evidence provides numerous cases of high-achiever cheating.
Teachers and principals say they feel pressure to improve the state test scores. They should, but only because the exams measure how well schools are performing. Teaching to the test is bad enough; cheating on the test is intolerable. It undermines the testing process by generating false reports that could mask instructional problems.
And cheating tarnishes the reputations of the violators and the institutions.
Take the U.S. Naval Academy, which recruits smart high school students. Twenty-four midshipmen were expelled and 64 others received lesser punishments after an electrical engineering exam was stolen in 1992. The scandal left a scar on that outstanding military institution.
More recently, 15 Annapolis High School students -- some of them National Honor Society members -- were caught cheating on an advanced-placement biology test. In light of that, D. Andrew Smith, a graduating Annapolis High student who serves on the county school board, wants the school system to draft specific language on academic dishonesty and expressly prohibit it.
"I'd say cheating is very widespread in all schools, at all levels, among all groups of students," Mr. Smith told The Sun last month. He said honor students are the worst offenders because "they want to achieve more."
We could blame W. C. Fields, who once said: "A thing worth having is a thing worth cheating for."
To be sure, few things are more precious to students than good grades. But grades are worthless when they come at the expense of good character.
That's the lesson teachers and principals must impart, pressure notwithstanding.