The recent discovery that a group of Long Island high school students paid five others to take the SAT for them has led to 20 arrests, with promises of more to come. New Yorkers, a mostly unflappable bunch, marvel that such brazen deception could have passed undetected for at least a couple of years. Prosecutors seem proud to take a bunch of college kids for a perp walk. And parents, especially those of high school students, worry that their children will be next. What can be done?
It is important to pause and recognize something that anyone who ever attended high school already knows: for a minority of students, cheating is a way of life. I attended a suburban, high-pressure school like the one where many of the suspects go. I also taught high school in the South Bronx for two years as part of Teach for America. The settings were night and day, but the cheater's code stayed the same. Copy homework or look at a friend's test all you want; just do not get caught.
Teenagers take short cuts for the same reasons adults do: to save time and look better than they really are. But this SAT scandal strikes me more as a crime of desperation than one of opportunity. Whereas an opportunistic cheat can sneak a peek at a friend's test sheet tout suite, paying someone else to take the SAT takes forethought and effort. No matter how rich these kids were, they still had to secretly put together $3,600 cash to seal the deal.
Aside from the plotting involved, consider the risk. Sure, copying a question off a friend's homework could earn you a zero. But nothing says "going for broke" like paying someone to present a fake ID with your name on it to a school official. Teens know that is plain reckless.
The fact that this cheating is qualitatively different from the usual shenanigans has heightened our collective sense of moral outrage and cast a cloud of suspicion on students throughout the affected district. There is a pervasive sense that the other shoe has yet to drop, which leaves everybody wondering: how many more cheaters will come forward? How long has this actually been going on for? What did the schools know? To what extent were any adults complicit?
More importantly, what does this scandal say about our nation's schools? Here I will depart from those who would blame a decline in family values and from those who would facilely condemn the college admissions process as a rat race. Without speaking to the character of the fifteen payers, many of whom reputedly come from prominent and well-liked families, let us agree that they knowingly made some poor choices. The question, then, is why they felt compelled to do so. If they disliked their first SAT scores, could they not have studied for it again like everybody else?
Of course. And that is the scary part. Despite their nurturing school environment and privileged upbringings, these 15 students did not possess enough self-assurance to study and sit for a single four hour exam. In uncovering so desperate an act of deceit, we need to take a hard look at the broken children who committed it. How small they felt to have their self-esteem held hostage by a faceless admissions committee at NYU or Cornell. How much they hated themselves for not scoring an arbitrary number they "needed." How panicked they were to pay $3,600 to other mediocre test-cheats.
I am no naïf; to those students, the college admissions process undoubtedly seemed like a rat race. And perhaps they would have acted differently if they had absorbed better values. But those points are secondary to a larger issue, which is that these ostensibly educated and well supported students went through the college admissions process feeling utterly unprepared.
Maybe they were. In fact, many students my company works with start SAT or ACT prep far too late to achieve their highest potential. They cram in the final months before test day, but spend years before that not working hard enough to master requisite reading, math, and writing skills. It is time for schools, parents, and teachers to recognize that for the most successful applicants, the college admissions process already begins years, not months, before test day. Students who make and follow a plan early on are much more likely to handle standardized tests, essays, applications and interviews with the confidence and experience necessary to thrive.
It doesn't seem realistic to transform quickly the competitive nature of college admissions. Certainly it would be no faster to change anyone's values. But building school curricula and family plans to support every student in getting ready to apply to college can be done right now. The only difference between the fifteen Great Neck cheaters and thousands of equally desperate students around the country is that these fifteen had the means to act. Let us make sure that in the future, no one has the motive.
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