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SAT scandal is as much about ethical lapses as security flaws

Posted: April 2, 2012 - 12:00am

What a shock: Smart guys with affluent parents cheat on tests for fun and profit.

It’s true that money can’t buy good morals or respectability. A fancy paycheck and fancier home can’t insulate your children from their own foibles, fallibility and foolish choices.

The makers of the nation’s most-prominent college admissions exams seem to believe that stricter photo ID rules can deter shysters from diminishing the investment made by every student who personally stressed forth their own SAT or ACT scores.

But I wonder whether this isn’t so much a security issue as a moral one.

Since last year, authorities on Long Island, N.Y., have been going after a collection of young adults who impersonated others to take the Scholastic Aptitude Test or were clients who paid the fake testers to produce enviable results. As much as $3,500 exchanged hands, according to news reports about the investigation by Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice.

A total of 20 people were arrested, including a pair of lawyers’ sons now attending Emory University in Atlanta and Tulane in New Orleans.

The New York press has written extensively about the saga. The reliably entertaining New York Post ran such captions as “Test perp.” One of the accused, who according to some reports has been allowed to take a plea deal, appeared on CBS News’ “60 Minutes.”

This week, new security measures were announced for the SAT and the lesser-used American College Test, starting with the 2012-13 school year.

Among other things, students will have to submit a photo when they register for either exam then bring an admissions slip with that picture and a matching ID on test day; scores with students’ photos will be sent to high school guidance counselors for verification; and test-takers will have to sign an acknowledgement that they know violators will be prosecuted.

The New York Times reported that the SAT was taken about 2 million times last year, with 3,000 scores questioned and 1,000 canceled. The number of suspicious scores presumably will go down.

Advocates of voter ID will argue, “See? You even need a photo card to take a college admissions test!”

Without conceding that voting outweighs college admission in the hierarchy of life’s pivotal moments, let me suggest these distinctions:

The Constitution doesn’t guarantee any right to take a stomach-churning standardized test that costs about $50 a pop, but the right to vote is protected, so restrictions on the first are more tolerable than on the second.

Besides that, having to produce a photo ID has not deterred SAT con artists. A driver’s license, school ID or passport was already required at check-in. Bamboozlers just produce fake IDs at the door.

Just like adults, kids sometimes cut corners. Test answers written on the inside of a water bottle label; a tiny cheat sheet slid inside a waistband; a restroom “emergency” to crib from index cards hidden in the toilet seat cover dispenser.

Students too lazy to devise their own methods can find a wikihow.com list that includes the “lanyard,” the “gum wrapper” and a “girls only” technique that seems to require more effort than actually studying.

In The Perfect Score, a 2004 movie about SAT cheating, the usual stereotypes — underachieving guy, brilliant stoner, jock, rich girl — try to steal the test answers.

Rice’s efforts to make the system more accountable are admirable, but this sentiment was jarring: “If we can’t teach 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds that cheating is wrong, shame on us.”

If 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds don’t know cheating is wrong, shouldn’t it be shame on them, and on whoever should have been teaching them right from wrong when they were 6, 7 and 8? Seems to me that what schools and other institutions can teach is the continuing life lesson that wrong choices carry bad consequences.

On The New York Times’ Room for Debate discussion page, Cornell University graduate Andrew Daines wrote in 2010 that colleges should require freshmen to study ethics.

“College can be a process of unlearning bad habits just as much as adding to one’s knowledge base,” he wrote. “A philosophical grounding for goodness, honesty and integrity helps students to see the value of maintaining ethical standards or rising to them.”

An ethics course, he said, “can and should be life-changing as it helps students discover new and fascinating intellectual incentives to do the right thing.”

Fear of getting caught is an incentive, but surely we can do better than that.

• Campbell is a Fort Worth Star-Telegram editorial writer.

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