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Articles / Applying to College / Cheating on Standardized Tests

Cheating on Standardized Tests

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Oct. 16, 2014

We're hearing a lot these days about academic cheating, both on the high school and college level. Even the United States military academies have had more than their share of embarrassing scandals. The Ivy League has not been immune either. Harvard University has been plagued with cheaters. Of course, one of the most high-profile areas for cheating is standardized tests.

In thinking back across my days (a.k.a. daze) in school, I recall some of the more ingenious cheating methods used by kids I knew. One intrepid student managed to get a copy of his junior year English final. He then figured out answers to all the questions and transcribed those answers onto a very small piece of paper, which he inserted into the transparent plastic barrel of a ballpoint pen that he had. Granted, it must have taken eagle eyes to read those tiny letters, but he somehow managed to do it.

This student managed to get away with his clever caper and I later heard that he was bragging about it by making the claim, "They say cheaters never win, but I'm doing okay." Shades of Animal House. I'm sure that readers here could cite any number of cheating examples that they have witnessed.


I won't get into the whole psychological basis for why students are motivated to cheat. My own snapshot analysis is that cheating kids are just lazy and they don't want to spend the energy needed to prepare themselves properly for the tests.

Academic experts and other professionals have vented long and hard about the cheating epidemic. In doing research about this topic, I found an especially insightful article by a college professor who has seen and had quite enough of cheating from her perspective. Rebecca Joseph, Associate Professor, California State University, Los Angeles, wrote Stop the Cheating: An Open Letter to the College Board and ACT, which appeared in the Huffington Post's The Blog section. Here are some highlights from Joseph's well-reasoned statement:

... As I have visited students across the city [Los Angeles] in the few days, each and everyone has told me of rampant cheating at every site where he or she took the SAT or ACT. In fact, several sites in southern California delayed releasing scores recently because of suspicion of cheating. The situation was so bad at one school last summer that they offered an August testing for a group of students ...

... Here are stories students share with me just in the past two days about the October 11th SAT.

  • Kids took their cellphones into the bathrooms during each of the three breaks and looked up answers to questions, and then went back into the testing room, picked up their same testing form, and changed answers.
  • Kids discussed questions on the test in the hallways during these three breaks and went back and changed their answers.
  • Kids with very previously high test scores took the test again, and allowed students around them to copy their answers.
  • Kids in the back row received text answers from high performing kids also sitting in back rows.
  • Kids used their own calculators, many of which were programmed for certain math equations and problems.

I am sure this is just the tip of the iceberg ...

... I blame the testing organizations for inappropriate rules and guidelines. Here are my recommendations.

  1. Take away or prohibit all cellphones. There is absolutely no need for any testing applicant to have a cellphone. Monitors can collect them at the beginning of the test and return when the test concludes. Or just ban cellphones all together.
  2. Take away testing forms from students and have them start with new ones for each section after breaks. That would prevent any impact from talking about tests in hallways.
  3. Randomly assign students to rooms and do not allow them to decide where to sit. When kids are assigned to a test site, they should receive a number, each desk should be numbered, and seating should be random. That would prevent pre-planned cheating.
  4. Randomly arrange for monitors to move a few students around rooms between sections. If students are moved, then copying will stop, and statistical analyses should be able to identify the cheaters.
  5. Provide calculators. If the College Board and ACT bought calculators and provided them to each test site, then no student could bring in pre-programmed calculators. That would have a side benefit for long-income test takers ...

... we need to create an anonymous hotline for students to call in suspected cheating. It is ridiculous that decent, hard-working kids, whose college lives can hang in the balance from test results, must be surrounded by rampant, unregulated cheating.

This needs to stop. It can be stopped. I ask The College Board and ACT to take responsibility for this international crisis. It is in their interests to protect the efficacy of the tests. In today's modern age, they need to have more pro-active testing day practices.

Someone posted a link to Joseph's open letter on the College Confidential discussion forum. Here are a few comments CC members made about the cheating scandals:

- I wonder if parents know about their offsprings cheating. I wonder how many students who place in the top percentiles cheat.

- Other kids cheat; my kids are just preparing for the real world.  

- Parents who prep their kids for the gifted program in first grade cheat. The kids learn what they are taught.

- Kids at the highest percentile don't need to cheat, and near all of their test scores are at the highest percentile (hard to cheat your way to the 99th across the board). But even so, in every score range there will be kids striving for the next level and willing to cheat to get there. Obviously, you need to care about your score to be willing to cheat, so I would guess cheating tendency is somewhat correlated to ambition of college plans, at least more so than to a given score range.

Also, lots of parents in certain demographics who complain/worry about other kids cheating on these tests would sell their left kidney to get their own kid qualified for extra time. Only a slight exaggeration of behavior I have seen repeatedly with my own eyes.  

- This is shocking. I didn't realize testing center rules were so lax. Why are the kids being allowed cell phones during testing hours? Why are they allowed to talk during breaks--isn't there supposed to be a rule against this? Why isn't seating assigned? Why aren't monitors also in the back of the room and kids being dismissed if they take out a cell phone during the exam? Why are test forms designed so that kids can see and change answers to previous sections?

- My testing site was pretty secure. Volunteer staff was roaming the entire time. There was assigned seating. If student left calculators on desk, they were removed. Students could talk to others with the same form during break, but any benefit from doing so would require them to memorize questions and answers. You'd have to be quick though, as breaks were only a few minutes. The students would then have to fill in previous sections without getting caught, which would've been challenging. Everyone was made to sit opposite from each other, and the table partners had different forms. All computers were off, no one took their phone out, etc.  


So, parents, what do you think about all this cheating? Did you ever cheat on a test? Are you aware of any cheating among your children's friends?

Perhaps another motivator for cheating is pressure, pressure from parents exerted on their children to do well so that they can get into "better" colleges. There are no absolutes, it seems. The age of moral relevancy has been around for some time now. One has to wonder how long it will be before all these morally relevant chickens come home to roost. I think, though, if you listen carefully, you can hear the flapping of wings.


Search College Confidential to read all my other articles about college admissions.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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