Six students from a top Long Island high school each hired the same recent high school graduate to take the SATs for them so that they could submit a higher test score than they would receive on their own as part of their college admissions profile. I am pleased they were caught but I’m certain that these students are not the only students who have substituted other individuals in their place to take important admissions and other examinations. What should happen to these high school students? The punishment should be severe (though I wouldn’t advocate jail time). How severe? If they are guilty as charged, I would recommend they should be barred from submitting a SAT test score or a high school transcript for at least a year and during that time they should provide extensive mandatory community service. A course on ethics should also be required. The test taker should also face at least as severe a punishment. And if there were any parents that aided and abetted this effort, their punishment should be much more severe. Furthermore, it appears that we need to substantially improve test security so that every possible safeguard is in place to prevent anyone else from taking the place of the student who is supposed to be the test taker.
Academic honesty is a problem in many high schools and in many colleges and universities. At times, especially since we are dealing with young adults, the plagiarism is unintentional. At other times, the cheating is both intentional and on-going. Many teachers and professors will react forcefully to cheating as it happens but at the same time intentionally moderate or eliminate long term consequences. Often cheating is not reported so as not to tarnish the student’s record and often the punishment is determined based on this cheating being a once in a lifetime occurrence, not a pattern. Once in a lifetime suggest that a moderate response is appropriate; a pattern suggests there needs to be an escalating response. How do we know what response is appropriate if the tracking system throughout much of a student’s education is rife with omissions? We really need to do better so that the message is more clearly and emphatically that academic dishonesty doesn’t pay.
Students are very aware of who cheats and students can help foster an environment where academic honesty is valued but at the same time, I don’t think we should count on students alone to play a lead role in moderating the cheating of other students.
What can we do? Every incident of cheating — unless it is clearly not intentional — should be reported. The penalty for an individual offense should be determined by the faculty member but there needs to be an additional penalty triggered by repeat offenses. Every student can make a mistake and learn from his/her mistakes. But more than one occurrence should be accompanied by a zero tolerance response that should, if it continues, result in suspension and, if justified, dismissal.
The penalty should also escalate as students advance in their education. We should all be more tolerant of a high school student or a first year college student making a mistake and much less tolerant of an advanced undergraduate or graduate student having an ethical lapse. And in certain fields such as law and medicine, the penalty for academic dishonesty, if proven, should be immediate dismissal.
All of us comment with dismay on the widespread culture where academic dishonesty is more or less prevalent. But to change the environment we need to do more than comment and more than deal with individual occurrences. We need as a community to work together, to report and to track academic dishonesty as it happens. If we are determined to reduce academic dishonesty, our actions can help make it happen.