You may know the town of Great Neck, Long Island as the setting of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel “The Great Gatsby.” Some of the elements that Fitzgerald described are still true of Great Neck, particularly its wealth. But it has also become known in the past several decades as a suburb full of high-achieving high school students. And most recently it also has become the setting of a different story, although one with echoes of Fitzgerald’s scandal theme: that of 20 students charged for their involvement in an SAT and ACT cheating scheme.
On Tuesday, November 22, 2011, 13 college and high school students were arrested and charged with paying another student to take the SAT or ACT tests for them or accepting payment to take the tests through impersonation, between 2008 and 2011. These 13 students joined seven others who had been charged with similar crimes in September. The eight high school students, who paid up to $3600 to have their tests taken, attended Great Neck North High School, North Shore Hebrew Academy High School, and Roslyn High School, among others. Many of the impersonators are former Great Neck students who are currently enrolled in high-ranking colleges such as Tulane, Indiana University, and SUNY Stony Brook.
According to a December 1 New York Times article, some of the test takers were having financial trouble, but mostly came from reasonably well-off families. The kids who paid them were affluent students who made unremarkable grades.
The scandal began with a rumor. But perhaps because Great Neck is well known as a pressure-cooker community, where it would not be beyond possibility that wealthy high school students would use their money, or, rather, their parents’ money, to get better scores on their college entrance exams, when administrators at Great Neck North caught wind of talk that a large scale cheating scheme existed, they did not hesitate to begin an investigation. Soon thereafter, however, they turned to Kathleen Rice, the Nassau County District Attorney, a decision which itself has become a source of controversy.
Indeed, the involvement of the Nassau County prosecutor’s office in the solution to the problem has been criticized by many parents, students, and other adults, who believe the investigation should have stayed within the schools. Brian Griffin, a lawyer now representing one of the accused test takers told the New York Times, “We have a school system that is separate and apart from the criminal justice system, and we have that for a reason.” Similarly, Gerard McCloskey, the lawyer for one of the students who paid another to take the test for him, argued that the problem should be “handled administratively by the College Board and the school board, not criminally.” And some of the Great Neck North students who paid others to take the tests for them had already served suspensions, been forced to retake the SAT and done community service after school-board administrative hearings.
Ms. Rice, however, claimed that she has a moral responsibility to charge the students criminally. She also stated that the opportunities to cheat had not been taken seriously enough by the College Board and that testing security was inadequate. In fact, at least one of the impersonators (a male) had taken the test for a female student. Thus, the five test takers were charged with felonies on charges of impersonation, scheming to defraud, and falsifying business records. The 15 high school students who paid them have been charged with misdemeanors.
Aside from the controversy over which entity most appropriately should be investigating and prosecuting the offending students, the very different punishments facing the two parties in the criminal justice system raises a different moral question. Who, ethically speaking, is worse in this context: he who pays or he who is paid? Assistant Head of High School Sam Aronson weighed in, saying, “The fraud that’s being perpetrated is one that, for the person who’s paying, continues throughout life. The person who is being paid to take the test is doing something wrong in aiding someone to perpetrate a fraud, but the fraud does not end when the scores get sent in and the person [who paid] perhaps gets into the college that he or she wants to go to.” Hence, while the test taker is committing a wrong action, the payer is creating a false image of himself that will continue throughout his college career and perhaps his entire life.
Junior Sarah de Ugarte feels similarly, saying that the person who is “actively seeking somebody to impersonate them so that they don’t have to deal with the test is much more morally culpable than someone who just wants the money.” Gautama Mehta, also a junior, added that “it’s not just unfair to those who don’t cheat. It’s unfair to those who don’t have the money to cheat.” Thus, the students who had the thousands of dollars required to cheat on their exams were morally unsound in that financial context as well.
Indeed, it may seem viscerally obvious that the people who offered money to others to cheat would be considered more ethically culpable because it was their idea, but the law seems to disagree. Instead, the payees could face up to one year in jail for their actions, while such severe punishment is not in question for the payers.
The biggest reason for this discrepancy is that the payees are all 18 or older, while the payers are mostly minors. Still, some students argued that, from a moral standpoint, the test takers deserve harsher punishment than those who paid them, even though, as Sarah pointed out, the test payers not only conspired with the test takers, they served as the impetus for the crime. As Gautama said, “It’s pretty heinous to accept children’s money to impersonate them. They’re minors and you’re an adult. You should be the responsible one in this situation. And there is a context for the kind of desperation that leads you to paying thousands of dollars for a test.” Mr. Aronson also argued that the college students are setting up “a business,” which “preys on these younger students who were caught in this horrible, pressurized situation.”
But even if the older students took advantage of the stressed-out test takers, is jail time a fair punishment? Sarah doesn’t think so, stating that imprisonment seemed like a disproportionate punishment for the test takers, particularly where there may have been a small age gap between the payers and the payees. Senior Eve Kummer-Landau also thought incarceration was overkill, although she acknowledged that something should be done to eradicate “the awful sense of entitlement” some of the high school students seemed to possess. It is a sense of entitlement that Senior Mikela Sheskier described as the feeling that “you can pay your way out of problems and situations,” and that she and Eve say may be at the root of the problem. Gautama, however, thinks incarceration may be a fitting punishment, and didn’t buy the argument, raised by some, that the test takers may have needed the money.
Ultimately, the one sure conclusion that can be drawn from this scandal is that something is seriously wrong with the culture of test taking. The high pressure that these students felt drove them to take the kind of risk that has now ruined their college careers at the very least. Great Neck North’s principal, Bernard Kaplan, told the New York Times that over the past 15 years, the number of Advanced Placement courses typically taken by students has increased from one or two to five or six. With this additional pressure and the generally heightened importance placed upon standardized tests, kids are driven to make snap decisions to make their lives easier. And, while cheating like this may be avoided by improving security in testing sites, perhaps a better course of action would be lessening the weight that these one-day tests bear.
Rebecca Anne Brudner
Age 17, Grade 12
Saint Ann’s School