This week’s revelations that students in Long Island paid other students to take the SATs for them has the media all lathered up. Is it a result of high stakes testing? Is it a sign of our now hyper competitive world? And of course they want to know how could this happen? Well it happens pretty easily, and like all massive test cheating, it’s been happening forever.
When I was in high school – ahem, 20 some years ago – I knew kids that took the SATs for other kids. At one private school in Brooklyn it was well-known that one boy took the SAT for his friend – for free because he was terrified of not doing well. His dad figured it out and turned him in. Nothing happened. Cheating on the SATs was and is easy because you’re dealing with kids who don’t necessarily have real government issued IDs. In NYC so few kids get a driver’s license by 17 that you end up using a school ID. Getting a fake school ID was easy back then before Photoshop, I can only imagine how easy it would be now. Then the kids sign up to take the SAT at a different high school where no one would know them anyway and that’s it. There’s no way the College Board hasn’t known this has been going on for years and years.
There were a lot of cheating scandals when I was in high school in NYC in the late 80’s. I had a friend whose mother was a guidance counselor at another high school and rumor was she used to give her daughter the science Regents exams beforehand to study and learn. The more infamous of the Regent Exam cheating was the local Yeshiva where teachers gave the students the tests and answers beforehand since they put little stock in state exams, and then those kids sold them to the public school kids. Really. The year of my Chemistry Regents Exam in 1989 the New York Post published the answers on the front page to expose the scandal. Imagine walking on to the subway at 6:45 am to go to school and take the test you’ve been studying for five weeks and see the answers staring you in the face as people read the morning paper. And they still made us sit and take the test, while pulling kids out one by one for suspected cheating. So bizarre.
We can all pretend we’re shocked by these new allegations of cheating, or we can admit that as long as these tests matter while at the same time not mattering much at all, kids will find a way around it and chances are there will be adults helping them along the way. Don’t you wonder how the kids with fake scores fared at the college they attended under false pretenses? Isn’t the whole joke about Harvard that the hardest part is just getting in?
I don’t condone cheating at all, but I also detest the hypocrisy around this latest scandal. Until they figure out a way to really measure a student’s abilities and academic promise – and stop putting so much importance on these giant one-off exams, kids and grown-ups will be looking for a way to game the system. If this puts focus on the College Board and why they are allowed to wield such power in the this space all the better. Our testing culture is only going to get worse as standardized tests become more prevalent and cover more and more subjects all in the name of “measuring” teacher effectiveness and ranking schools. And more and more parents and school districts will pour money into test prep classes and workshops. How many times have you heard that kids need to not just learn the material for the test but learn how to take the test in the first place. It’s what the Princeton Review started 20 years ago and they fostered an entire industry around it.
Ideally, parents, teachers, administrators and students will stand up and say this one day of sitting at a desk with a number 2 pencil is just a tiny piece of the puzzle instead of 90%. Until then, we will have to live with these tests and teach our kids that while the results may not accurately reflect their abilities and potential by cheating they are doing more damage to their character than any score ever could.