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The SAT/ACT Scandals: A Different Perspective

As a result of the widely-publcized SAT/ACT cheating scandals last year, Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice charged a total of 20 teenagers from five Long Island high schools with cheating. But amid all of ...

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As a result of the widely-publicized cheating scandals last year in which Long Island high school students used fake IDs to take the SAT or ACT for other students, a recent New York Times article reported that Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice charged a total of 20 teenagers with cheating. The students came from five Long Island high schools—Great Neck North, Great Neck South, Roslyn High School, the North Shore Hebrew Academy and St. Mary’s High School in Manhasset.

Five of the students were accused of taking tests for others and 15 were accused of paying them anywhere from $500 to $3,600 to take the tests. The article also confirms that as many as 50 students might have been involved.

The Educational Testing Service, which administers the SAT exam for the College Board, confirms that each year approximately 3,000 test scores are canceled and that of them 150 involve impersonation.

As a result, beginning next fall, students will be required to submit photos of themselves along with their applications to take the test. Their photos will be printed on their admission tickets as well as on the admission roster and will be examined when students arrive at the test, during breaks and when they hand in their tests.

The photos will also be examined by high school counselors and college admission officials after scores are calculated and submitted.

But amid all of the focus on the crimes and the legal and remedial measures being taken, the question remains, “What motivates students to cheat in the first place, especially when the stakes are so high?”

A December 1, 2011 New York Times article defining Great Neck as “a certain slice of affluent, education-obsessed suburbia” reported that Bernard Kaplan, principal of Great Neck North High School, said that when he came to the school in 1993, students typically took one Advanced Placement course—now it is often five or six. With that increased intensity has come pressure to cheat—and technologies making it easier to do so, he continued.

In an article published in 2011 in the British Journal of Management entitled, “To Win, or Not to Lose, At Any Cost: The Impact of Achievement Goals on Cheating”[1], researchers explain the difference between performance-approach goals and mastery-approach goals. Performance-approach goals entail striving to do better than others while mastery-approach goals entail striving to do better than one has done before.


The results of their research in each of three achievement settings: work, sport and education, consistently confirmed that individuals with dominant performance-based goals reported stronger intentions to cheat than their counterparts with dominant mastery-based goals. In other words, those who are motivated to outperform others tend to cheat more.


Further findings published in The Journal of Experimental Education[2] conclude that “As students reported a stronger performance approach goal, they also expressed a stronger desire to evade others’ help, presumably in fear of exposing their relative weaknesses. Students were also more prone to cheat when their ultimate goal . . . was to avoid appearing less capable than others.”


In an empirical study conducted in 2004 to examine the association between attitudes on cheating and cognitive moral development[3], researchers concluded that “the benefits of cheating outweighed the possible costs of being caught or being embarrassed/embarrassing loved ones.”


In her article entitled, “High-Stakes Testing and Students: Stopping or Perpetuating a Cycle of Failure”[4], Cathering Horn, a research associate for the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, citing the work of Madaus and Horn, notes "Although the use of standardized tests was intended to assist in the improvement of public education and in many ways it has, it also created long-term, intractable problems related to misuse or overuse."


Horn points out that test scores give us important information, but they do not give us all the information necessary to make critical decisions.


Perhaps if education were less performance-based with less emphasis on a single measure and SAT and ACT scores were more balanced with other indicators of achievement that, as Horn contends, would allow “one measure to offset another”, students would meet with far less motivation to cheat in the first place.


[1] British Journal of Management, Vol. 22, S5–S15 (2011)

DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8551.2010.00702.x

[2] The Journal of Experimental Education, 2008, 76(2), 191–217

[3] Source: Journal of Business Ethics, Vol. 50, No. 4 (Apr., 2004), pp. 397-414Published by: SpringerStable URL: .

[4] Source: Theory into Practice, Vol. 42, No. 1, The Impact of High-Stakes Testing (Winter,2003), pp. 30-41Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.Stable URL: