03/16/2011 01:28 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Is Cheating on the SAT Rational? Maybe So

There is no test that looms larger in the lives of young Americans than the SAT. Even though over 700 colleges no longer require the SAT for admission, it still plays a major role in the college admissions process and looms large over the lives of millions of anxious American teenagers -- and even pre-teenagers.

There are obviously huge incentives to cheat on the SAT, since test scores can have a major impact on one's professional and economic future. Still, cheating on the SAT does not seem to be very common, in part because it is difficult to do. The tests are well-proctored and the stakes are high. While Internet chat boards and YouTube videos offer advice on how to cheat on the SAT, it doesn't seem that many students are brash enough to take such a huge risk during one of the most important moments of their young lives.

But cheating on the SAT does happen. The biggest chink in the SAT security system is if a student hires an impostor to take the test for them, showing a fake ID to test administrators. (Biometric ID verification is not used to verify the authenticity of test takers -- not yet, anyway.) This SAT cheating scheme isn't easy to pull off, but it can be done -- especially if you're a rich kid from an affluent suburb -- say, a place like Great Neck, Long Island.

According to the New York Post:

A group of students at a prestigious Long Island high school are being eyed in a college-test cheating ring, The Post has learned.

The kids, seniors at John L. Miller Great Neck North HS, allegedly tried to improve their college prospects by hiring a third party to take their SAT exams, sources said.

A Great Neck school board source confirmed the district is investigating the alleged cheaters.

"There are hearings taking place right now that are ongoing," the source said. "I know that the superintendent is talking to various people, including the principal and other administrators, to get to the bottom of what's going on.

"I know that they are looking into several students."

Among those under investigation, sources said, are two brothers, one a senior and the other already in college. . . .

Students at the manicured high school -- where teenagers whiz about in BMWs and Range Rovers -- said rumors of an SAT-cheating ring have been circulating for months.

"Everyone knows about it," said a female senior. "You get the feeling that its widespread, and not just here in Great Neck."

"They are trying to keep it quiet," said a male senior, a classmate of one of those accused of cheating on the college-entrance test. "It's embarrassing for the school."

If these charges are true, fasten your seat belts. An SAT cheating scandal at one of the top-ranked high schools in America is almost certain to provoke one of those periodic moments of soul searching about how today's youth are so stressed out and anxious about their futures that they'll chuck their ethics out the window to get ahead. That conversation is already percolating, thanks to the movie "Race to Nowhere", which offers a trenchant look at academic competition among kids, and has been screening in upscale suburbs. (It played in Little Neck, Long Island, in January.)

One thing, though, about such conversations: They usually don't change a thing, since many of the pressures on students are structural in nature, and include the intense competition for college admission thanks to today's huge demographic bulge of young people; the sky high cost of college, which places a premium on having the grades to land scholarships; and -- maybe most of all -- the widening gap between America's economic winners and everyone else, which creates incentives to do whatever it takes to be on the right side of that growing divide. Get into Yale or Harvard and your chances of joining the elite who are reaping most of the income gains these days are as good as they can get. Go to NYU or -- heaven forbid -- Rutgers, and your chances are lower. I explored these trends and how they drive student cheating in my book The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead, and blog about them on

Students understand the high stakes of academic competition and much of today's cheating is -- I'm sorry to say -- largely rational behavior that responds to real incentives. Does that mean it makes sense to cheat on the SAT? No -- at least if you get caught.