Has cheating gone mainstream in America?

I tend to think that concerns about declines in moral values relate more to the access we now have to information than a real shift in behavior — but stories like this make me wonder.  It shouldn’t surprise anyone that students will try to cheat their way through tests, even college entrance exams, even though that’s rather self-destructive.  What does surprise is that cheaters have apparently turned it into an industry in New York:

[Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen] Rice has charged 20 current or former students from a cluster of well-to-do, high-achieving suburbs on Long Island with participating in a scheme in which teenagers hired other people for as much as $3,500 each to take the exam for them. The five alleged ringers arrested in the case were accused of flashing phony IDs when they showed up for the tests. All 20 have pleaded not guilty.

If you believe that the teenagers had $3500 in cash to pay off ringers without their parents’ knowledge, I have some swampland in Mineola to sell you, too.  In my column for The Fiscal Times, I channel my inner curmudgeon and wonder what the parents were thinking:

On one level, cheating is an understandable impulse. Entrance exam scores can make a big difference in winning coveted slots at prestigious and more exclusive colleges and universities.  Parents – who presumably foot the bill for hiring these ringers – feel tremendous pressure to give their children the best odds they can for gaining admission to Ivy League schools, where success would mean better prospects for future careers.

What does it matter that the cheaters will keep more worthy students from getting the access they have earned? Actually, it means a lot – and not just for altruistic reasons, either, although those should come into play. We want the best and brightest to achieve the most, because at some point, we’ll need to see a doctor about a health issue, or perhaps an attorney to plan an estate or even to keep us out of jail.  Even just for purely selfish reasons, wouldn’t we prefer to get the attorney who didn’t need to cheat to get into Harvard Law and then cheat his way through the bar exam? I feel safe in assuming that the parents of the people charged in this case will insist on getting the best possible legal representation for their offspring.

Even on a selfish plane, though, cheating on entrance exams doesn’t make a lot of sense, either. The principle underlying these exams is to make sure students don’t get into an academic situation that they can’t handle – a sure path to failure. Unless a parent wants to put the ringer through college, at some point their own high-school graduate will have to keep up at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or other storied halls of learning.

Those who cannot take their own SAT or ACT will likely fare very poorly in those environments, wasting everyone’s time, money, and resources. Cheating in this case only cheats the student who pays someone to do their work for them as well as rob a more prepared student of the opportunity to excel.

These incidents always result in higher public costs, whether through lost opportunities for better-prepared students, or more directly by making goods and services more expensive.  That’s certainly going to be the case with the SATs and ACTs:

The millions of students who take the SAT or ACT each year will have to submit photos of themselves when they sign up for the college entrance exams, under a host of new security measures announced Tuesday in the aftermath of a major cheating scandal on Long Island. …

Students have long been required to show identification when they arrive for one of the tests. Under the new rules, they will have to submit head shots of themselves in advance with their test application. A copy of the photo will be printed on the admission ticket mailed to each student, and will also appear on the test site roster.

School administrators are “going to be able to compare the photo and the person who showed up and say that’s either John Doe or that’s not John Doe. They didn’t have the ability to do that before,” the district attorney said.

The photo will also be attached to the student’s scores, which, for the first time, will be sent to his or her high school, so that administrators and guidance counselors can see the pictures. Previously, test results were sent only to the student.

Terrific.  It’s not as if schools are so busy with administrative mandates that they’ve already become top-heavy, taking resources away from children who need to prepare themselves for future success.  Oh, wait …

The real problem in this isn’t a lack of security for the ACTs and SATs.  It’s a lack of respect for what had been considered classic virtues — honor, integrity, or even rational self-interest.  Instead of succeeding on one’s own merits, we have arrived at a place where we reward — heck, even expect — people to game systems for dishonest advantage.  It’s not just college tests, either, but marriages, as the success of the cheating website Ashley Madison attests.  Dishonesty and infidelity have been around as long as human nature, but until recently, they hadn’t become profit industries.

Perhaps I’m just hearkening back to an idyllic time of old-fashioned values (full disclosure: I grew up in the 1970s, so this is unlikely), but we really do seem to have lost our moral bearings.  I don’t need a politician to impose those, nor a prosecutor to force college-boards services to provide security to account for the gap.  We need parents that teach that honor and integrity should be more highly valued than an SAT score, and a culture that lifts those values on its own.  That’s something to consider when we engage the culture in the future.

Update 3/30/12: The media relations director of ACT Inc. writes to tell me that ACT will not be raising its prices as a result of the increased security protocol.  However, it still means more administrative work for the schools and time costs for everyone involved.

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