The Truth About Cheating Your Way to Standardized Test Success

11/09/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Is it true that "cheaters never prosper" or "cheaters never win"? The L.A Times's recent piece, aptly titled "Cheating on ACT, SAT college entrance exams has few consequences," made me question this adage. The July 14th article exposed one of the standardized testing world's often undisclosed realities and, although I fear the consequences of making their "no-consequences" cheating policy public knowledge, I also feel that it must be addressed.

Both the ACT and the SAT maintain that their "no-consequences" policy for potential cheaters is based on a mutual respect for the student's confidentiality. According to them, all students, including those caught cheating, deserve anonymity. It is their own integrity (the SAT and ACT's) that prevents these institutions from punishing cheaters. And, consequently, they inadvertently end up sanctioning cheating in the testing center.

Perhaps they think of this policy as modern day chivalry -- they're sensitive to the damage that could be inflicted if the tester's dirty laundry were aired to a college admissions committee. The student could potentially be haunted by their wayward past, thus shaping their future in a not insignificant, although probably manageable, way.

Those caught cheating might be forced to change their college list or consider community colleges for the first time. They could also apply to any of the strong four-year colleges that have recently shunned the SAT and ACT as inaccurate barometers of collegiate success. Perhaps they'd even be permitted to keep all their prior test scores, while not being allowed any further tests after the incident. Or maybe they'd be left with only one standardized test option -- whichever one they weren't caught cheating on. They would, after cheating on a major test that often makes and breaks a student's admission into the school of his or her dreams, have to settle for less.

Consider the message the ACT and College Board would be sending if, in fact, the cheater had to take some responsibility for his or her actions. The message might be something to the effect of "cheaters never prosper." Such a message could inspire personal responsibility and maturity, lessons in adulthood that many of us never have the privilege to learn. Although I recognize that teenagers are not yet adults (and I am by no means suggesting that they be prosecuted as such), I ask merely that they receive some kind of punishment, as any high school or college student would if caught lying to a professor, cheating on an exam or plagiarizing a paper. In real life, people do cheat and get away with it. But, as a rule, people caught cheating do not. Don't we owe it to our children to teach them these lessons at an age where they don't risk jail or joblessness because of a slip in judgement?

I do not claim to know the proper consequences. I only wish that there were consequences and, in particular, not the kind of laughable consequences that hurt the honest and reward the dishonest. Perhaps the consequence could vary in severity depending on the mode of cheating. The L.A Times addressed, in particular, a rather elite and comprehensive form of cheating, wherein the student presumably hires another tester, pays for this person's fake ID, and hands over the testing fees - a brand of cheating that really only the wealthy can afford. And it is, in fact, only the wealthy that can then afford to take the test multiple times, before or after the incident, and send only their highest scores to their chosen universities. Should their punishment, certainly not a desperate glance over the shoulder and onto a neighbour's answer sheet, be greater because of it having been so thoughtfully planned? As the policy currently stands, if a student is caught cheating (by hiring a stand-in with a fake ID, manipulating cell phones, copying another's test etc.) the test is rendered invalid and the student need only sign up for another testing date.

If one is caught cheating and chooses to send scores from that particular standardized test, a "generic alert" is sent to the university. This alert does not specify what, exactly, has caused the test administrators to cancel a student's score, but simply that it needed to be canceled for any number of reasons. One such reason is illness! Although a school could contact the child directly if they're curious about a canceled score, a student needn't admit to any wrongdoing. And those folks who really did contract the stomach flu during the test are guilty by association. A generic alert sends a red flag to the university -- everyone with a canceled score is under suspicion.

The ACT and SAT's goal is simple: to uphold valid scores. But ignoring the problem helps no one. It is not the schools' responsibility to punish students for cheating on a test that they, the schools, have little control over. Regardless, under the ACT and SAT's cloak of secrecy, distinguishing between cheating rumours versus cheating realities is nearly impossible.

No one can really make the SAT or ACT change their ways. And now, with their "no-consequences" policy public knowledge, more kids will inevitably turn to deceit as a way of securing admissions into their university of choice. And it's hard to blame them. Because, in the world of standardized tests, cheaters just may prosper.