Cheating and WINNING

Cheating is wrong, right?  The phrase I’ve always heard is that “cheaters cheat themselves”.  I think the idea is that in cheating you don’t allow yourself the opportunity to see what you can do on your own or how a situation might unfold; you deny yourself the chance to learn.  (Yes, I’m approaching this from a philosophical perspective rather than a moral perspective.)

What is cheating?  There are definitions which most of us reading this will agree on readily: using an outside source for information (whether it be a crib sheet or the internet or a friend) when you are supposed to rely on your own knowledge base; using information from another source as your own; being unfaithful to a partner; influencing someone with false information; etc.

Years ago I taught English as a second language at an international school where I learned the definition of cheating differs across cultural lines.  In one class I had a group of students from the same country and their cultural belief was that sharing answers during a test situation was not cheating as long as every student was included.  This belief stemmed from the importance their culture places on the group, rather than our American emphasis on the individual.  Fascinating, right?  (Yes, I did explain to them that because they were taking tests in the United States, I expected them to abide by our definitions of cheating.)

Why am I writing about cheating today?  A few days ago (better late than never, right?) the news story broke about a 19yo college student who was paid by 6 students of his former Long Island high school to take the SAT for them.  Both the college student and the students who paid him have been arrested.  The college student faces “charges of scheming to defraud, falsifying business records and criminal impersonation. If convicted, he faces up to four years in prison. The other six students are facing misdemeanor charges and have not been identified because of their ages” according to an ABC news blog.  There was also a follow up story that condemned the students further because they were “only” going to “party schools”.  Wow – that’s an interesting message.  Would it have been acceptable or “worth it” if the students had attended Ivy League schools?

The point of my post is not shake my fist in moral indignation (though that could be a fun rant!) but instead to seriously analyze the idea of cheating on a college entrance exam.  A purpose of the SAT and ACT is to provide colleges and universities with one piece of data on applicants that is the same.  Did you know that some high schools (and I’m only talking about American schools here – if we go international it really gets interesting!) report grades on a 100 point scale; others use traditional “A,B,C” letter grades; others use nontraditional letters like “O,S,U”; others use a 4.0 scale; some use a 5.0 or 6.0 scale; some list grades on the transcript but don’t calculate a cumulative GPA; and my personal favorite – some don’t report any grades at all.  You can imagine the challenges that colleges face trying to compare these students in a meaningful way.  I sometimes spent hours translating grade point averages as an admission counselor.  Schools want to be as fair as possible but what’s the difference between a 90 GPA at one school and a B+ at another or a “S” at another?  Sometimes very little, other times a great deal.

So the SAT and ACT are used to compare students against each other, against students at their own high schools and against students all over the world.  Are the tests fair?  There is a significant amount of research and data to suggest that they are not.  On average, Caucasian students score 200 points higher than African American students on the SAT and more than 100 points higher than all Latino groups.  Girls score lower than boys on the Reasoning portion of the SAT, despite having higher average grades in both high school and college.  This data is reported and analyzed by The National Center for Fair and Open Testing.  Also, many students are poor test takers.  The reasons for being a poor test taker range from anxiety to learning disabilities to how we acquire and share knowledge.  And the reverse can also be true – students with average grades can score very well on standardized tests.  The reason behind this phenomenon (speaking as one who lived it) is more straightforward – typically we are underachievers – intelligent but not working to our potential.  Sound like anyone you know?

Colleges use the SAT and ACT as only one part of the admission decision.  And a number of schools have now become “test optional” – according to The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, there are nearly 850 schools that don’t use the ACT or SAT to admit the majority of their applicants.  So if you have a strong academic record or an artistic/athletic gift that you feel is not well reflected in your testing ability, you can apply to one or more of these schools.  On the other hand, you can plan ahead in your junior year, go online to the ACT or the SAT and do some practice tests, brush up on your weak areas, and put your best effort into taking the exam(s).   You might surprise yourself.  And even if you don’t, you’ll be admitted to schools where the students who enroll will have similar GPA and test scores to you. Not such a terrible scenario, is it?

But what isn’t going to work, what will only lead to very bad things, is cheating on your ACT or SAT.  Leaving the moral and legal issues out of it for a minute, what if you cheat successfully?  Meaning you get the score you want and no one finds out.  (By the way, the owners of the SAT and ACT don’t notify legal authorities in cases of cheating unless they believe a law was broken.  Most college prep test cheating is done via students sharing answers.)  Then you get admitted to the college of your dreams – where you really don’t meet the admission standards, but they don’t know that.  And you show up on campus and everything is great for a while.  Until you realize that you’re in over your head academically.  You’re overwhelmed by your coursework and feel like your classmates know more than you do about every subject. And you begin to feel bad about yourself.  And your dream college begins to feel a little less dreamy.  Maybe you drop out, maybe you fail out, maybe you transfer.  Hopefully you recover and continue at a school that’s right for you. But lots of students don’t – and the hit to your head and your heart and your wallet is rough. Remember Charlie Sheen?  Did anyone watch him talk about “winning” and consider him to be a winner?  Don’t put yourself in that same category – take your own tests, write your own essays, let colleges know the real and admit the real you. Because that, my friends, really is winning.