Giving the SAT to the TSA, by Cherylyn Harley LeBon

In the past several months, there have been increasing attacks on the SAT — the college admissions-related standardized test — that include charges that it is racially and culturally biased.

Additionally, activists are pushing colleges and universities to adopt a test-optional policy that would give each student the option to exclude test results from his or her admissions package. Some of this effort is rooted in concern for students’ self-esteem.

At the moment, the SAT is still very much a factor in the college admissions process.

To that end, seven students were recently arrested in an alleged SAT cheating scandal at Great Neck High School on Long Island. A graduate of that high school, now attending Emory University, is accused of taking the SAT test for six current high school students.

The response from the Nassau County District Attorney has been swift: the college student was charged with several offenses, including falsifying business records. The high school students may also face criminal prosecution.

Cheating is serious, and it must be dealt with immediately and with the appropriate repercussions. The manner in which this case is being handled stretches plausible enforcement boundaries.

Is the criminal justice system the appropriate venue for a disciplinary action that should really be addressed at the school district level — and with parental involvement?

Raising further questions is the fact that the chairman of the New York State Senate Higher Education Committee, Senator Kenneth LaVelle (R) of Long Island, called a legislative hearing on the scandal and SAT testing security and promptly held a three-hour hearing entitled, “Truth in Testing: A Comprehensive Look at Standardized Testing Security Procedures” at the State University at Farmingdale.

As a lawyer and mother of two school-aged children, I completely agree with taking the necessary measures to prevent these sorts of scandals and send a message to students that cheating will not be tolerated. But I am not convinced that we need to engage in criminal prosecutions or hold three-hour hearings as an effective means of accomplishing this goal.

The SAT test is currently administered in over 7,000 locations in 170 countries. A decision by the administrators of the SAT to immediately change their security measures would not only create a bureaucratic nightmare, but also create barriers to testing for some students. A new security regime might lead to a more anxiety-ridden process for the very students testers are trying to help.

Is it really necessary to turn the SAT into a mini-TSA security hub?

To their credit, the Educational Testing Services — which administers the SAT — maintains that its staff regularly reviews security measures and make enhancements, as long as they do not impact the exam’s costs or complicate logistics. The SAT test has been around for decades, and cheating involves a miniscule number of students.

Isolated cases of cheating should be handled locally, and justice administered as far down as the household level.

Responsibility for handling student behavior lies at the feet of the local school districts, parents and students themselves. Therefore, it falls upon school administrators to emphasize to students and parents that there are serious repercussions for cheating — and then follow through on those admonitions.

It’s understandable that the Nassau County District Attorney’s office and the state legislature would like to eradicate cheating, but the intervention of lawmakers and their bureaucratic minions is not a good use of the taxpayer money.

Here’s the bottom line: let the prosecutors focus on serious crimes and not the misdemeanor or less that is students’ cheating. Let school districts and parents spend some more time on those disciplinary procedures.

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Cherylyn Harley LeBon is member of the National Advisory Board of Project 21. She is a former Senior Counsel on the US Senate Judiciary Committee. Comments may be sent to [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @HarleyLeBon.

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