Is it really surprising that students in a tony New York suburb figured out a way, according to law-enforcement officials, to cheat on the SAT? When I first saw the headlines, I was slightly shocked at the audacity of a scam that allegedly involved a 19-year-old college student accepting large sums of money to take the SAT for at least six other students.
Then I remembered the dozens of stories I’ve written over the years about the race for spots in the nation’s most competitive colleges and universities. It’s an arms race that turns parenting into a competitive sport, and provides the wealthy with whatever-it-takes tools to give their progeny a boost. College admissions boot camps, consultants who help build student resumes and guide applications, essay-writing services, and—always—tutors who can charge well over $500 an hour.
As long as you can pay for it, it seems, anything goes.
Why should cheating shock us? After all, discussions and headlines abound these days about cheating scandals and erasures by educators on standardized exams. The message that winning trumps thinking has begun to prevail, even at a time when Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews correctly questions the continuing relevance of the SAT.
So when I was asked last night on NBC’s Nightly News if I was surprised by the cheating scandal at Long Island’s Great Neck North High School, I realized I wasn’t.
The alleged ringleader has since been arrested and charged with a scheme to defraud, falsifying business records and criminal impersonation.
But I quickly wanted to change the conversation—something that’s hard to do in a 20-second television appearance. I didn’t want to talk about new ways to game the system and help kids who’ve already had sufficient advantages increase their chances for spots at elite institutions. I wanted to focus on the graduation gap and how far the U.S. is falling behind other countries when it comes to getting college students to graduate. If we don’t change the rate at which we produce two-year and four-year college graduates, the U.S. will face a projected shortfall of 23 million college-educated adults in the American workforce by 2025.
For every American student who graduates from college, two drop out.
Those are the issues and questions that need to be deeply examined by the press, policymakers and politicians. President Barack Obama has pushed for a new graduation initiative to address this, but as The Hechinger Report’s Jon Marcus recently noted, Obama’s initiative faces more than a few stumbling blocks.
Of course, there will be lots of headlines about the kids from Great Neck and their attempts to game the SAT. I just hope they’ll be followed by attention to what we can do to get more U.S. students to and through college. Performing well on the SAT and getting into college are just two small parts of a much larger and more important equation. And once students get to college, learning to think critically has to take center stage.
You can’t pay someone to do that for you.