SAT Cheating Scandal: Are Stakes Getting Too High for College Admission?

PHOTO: Six high school students in Great Neck, N.Y., are facing misdemeanor charges for allegedly paying $1,500 to $2,500 to Samuel Eshaghoff to take the SAT for them.
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The case of a Great Neck, N.Y., man accused of being paid to take the SAT for high school students is once again prompting questions nationwide about how much cheating goes on in the world of high-stakes testing.

It's also renewing concerns that the pressure placed on students to score well on a single test, which plays a big role in determining the academic future for so many high-schoolers, may be encouraging them to cheat.

Six students at Great Neck North High School are facing misdemeanor charges for allegedly paying $1,500 to $2,500 to Samuel Eshaghoff to take the test for them, according to a news release Tuesday by Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice.

Mr. Eshaghoff is a 2010 graduate of the high school and went on to attend the University of Michigan and Emory University.

"Colleges look for the best and brightest students, yet these six defendants tried to cheat the system and may have kept honest and qualified students from getting into their dream school," Ms. Rice said in the statement. The defendants were not named by prosecutors because of their ages.

Eshaghoff, facing a felony charge and a possibility of four years in prison, is accused of using IDs with his photo, but with the other students' names, to take the SAT on their behalf. Some of his scores were above 2100, Ms. Rice said. A result of 2400 represents a perfect score on the test.

Great Neck is a wealthy community, and the fact that such a scandal is playing out there "is an illustration of the SAT arms race that takes place, particularly in very affluent towns where kids think they are failures unless they go to a school where their parents would be proud to put the bumper sticker in their back window," says Robert Schaeffer, spokesman for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing in Boston, Mass., which tracks and critiques standardized tests.

By some measures, the majority of American youths feel that cheating on tests is justified. In a Josephson Institute of Ethics survey of 43,000 high school students this year, 59 percent admitted cheating on a test during the past year, with 34 percent doing it more than two times. Yet 92 percent of the students said they were satisfied with their personal ethics and character.

Cheating scandals in education have cropped up in all forms recently. "The real question is, as a society do we really want to take this seriously or only deal with it when people are unlucky enough to get caught?" says Michael Josephson, founder and president of the Josephson Institute. "We're raising the next generation of corporate villains and pirates if we don't reinforce with vigor and consistency the absolute essentiality of integrity."

The SAT and ACT, another college admissions test, generally play a major role not only in whether a student gets into a school, but also on the type of grants or other financial aid they receive.

But it's difficult to know how widespread various forms of cheating are on such tests. It's more common to hear about sharing answers during the tests, which are often monitored by underpaid and overworked proctors, Mr. Schaeffer, a critic of standardized testing, says.

Prosecutions for impersonations such as this one are rare, he adds, though there have been sporadic reports and investigations over the years, particularly back in the 1990s when student athletes had to get a minimum SAT score to qualify to play – a rule that has since been changed.

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