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Chanthorn Peou of San Diego, Calif., takes the SAT aboard the USS Kitty Hawk (U.S. Navy photo by Jason T. Poplin)

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.

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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.

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  1. Kids coming out of college today with Bachelor’s, Master’s and PhD. degrees are unable to find jobs. An education and a degree is no a guarantee to survive in today’s economy. Yes, it’s great to educate more kids better, and get them into college, and teach them something that the world can use (or at least make them happy, self-sufficient citizens) BUT there’s a bigger issue: There are no jobs even if the kids study hard, learn something, and get their degrees.

  2. It’s funny how I googled myself and I keep seeing the repeat use of this picture of me maybe 8 or 9 years ago. Actually in this article I am amused at how anyone would choose this picture of a bald asian kid in the United States Navy for your article. Although I am super wow honored as if I had gotten another Excellence Award like back in the days of Euclid Elementary School in “fresh immigrant” sector of San Diego, California.

    Anyways, as a refugee whose parents escaped Pol Pot and genocide caused by… Eh hemm… Who never really got the kind of attention that is required for a healthy up bringing because his parents were too busy trying to juggle a healthy family and surviving in a foreign world that the only thing both parties understand is not understanding each other… I just try to do the best I believe I can do.

    I agree that having children who obtains degrees equates into bragging rights amongst friends. It has always been so as well in my community growing up. Children becomes assets to their parents to flaunt at a community event. It seems like they have nothing else since everything else was stripped from them.

    Now speaking of critically thinking.. I spent a whole 2 seconds after reading your article in critical thinking before I committed myself to replying to this old dead article written by a person who is another world away.

    I think… The question to the answer you think you have is… “Who” are you trying to help? Yourself or “America”?

    Because I think you don’t understand the existence of another question. “What if our entire idea of our own educational system is wrong?”

    The reason why I say that and ask that question is because of my keen observation ability.

    Because I have no college degree but I have been recruiting, trained and coached numerous college dioloma award winners of all ages in business operations and management and I have asked myself many times… Why am I interviewing these people I was trained by my surroundings as “successful” by the fact that they hold degrees for jobs that a college drop out like myself might be better qualified for? Better qualified meaning “more hungry and it’s life or death I need this job because I have to put my kids through college so that they can succeed and not be like me” kind of “better qualified”… As the hiring manager I would be looking for a prospect that might stick around long enough to produce profit…

    So I kept thinking and thinking… My idea of success must be wrong… Well where did I get this idea?

    Anyhow… Thanks for using my picture.. Can I get an autographed copy of this page somehow by the writer.. Editor and webmaster? That would be awesome 🙂 To me.. This is one highlight in my life 🙂

  3. Oh yeah btw regarding the picture.

    While I served in the United States Navy from 2001 – 2005. I worked everywhere from the “Human Resource” aka “Personnel” Department, Educational Division, Career Division, Maintenance as well as Public Affairs Division.

    Put “Education” and “Public Affairs” together and you get this picture. We were promoting to Sailors “the benefits of a college education”. I myself took the test in 30 minutes… I should’ve used the entire time alotted… I scored dumb.

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