Last weekend hundreds of thousands of American high school seniors -- and some from other nations -- sat down nervously to take the SAT test, that fateful measure of scholastic aptitude that will in large part determine their academic fate for the next several years.
But several recent high-profile events are raising the question of cheating, despite strong admonitions against it in Palo Alto area schools.
One such event was the discovery that six students at Great Neck High School, a high-performing top-100 school similar to Palo Alto schools, actually hired a young-looking college student to take their SATs for them.
Well, the fellow had to work his way through college somehow, I suppose.
This followed revelations that some teachers and administrators, mostly in low-performing schools, were fudging test scores by erasing wrong answers and putting in correct responses to multiple-choice tests. Fudging? Hardly.
Yet there are serious, job-threatening penalties for teachers and administrators whose schools are deemed to be doing poorly or failing under federal regulations. Just keeping one's job can be a big incentive.
But what are these folks thinking, whatever their age or position as a student or teacher? And where did the Great Neck students get the $2,500 per-student fee to pay the college kid to sneak into the test room? In one case, CNN reported that he even took the place of a young woman student and was not detected. Did the parents not know their children were siphoning off pocket change from their allowances -- or were parents involved as co-conspirators?
Meanwhile, the Sacramento Bee reported Wednesday that California schools two years ago abandoned a "cheating detection" system -- such as watching for excessive erasure marks on test papers -- in favor of an "honors system." That may work for most students, but perhaps some are honor challenged and don't mind one-upping their fellows for their own advantage.
Well, six students may make national headlines but don't make a statistical blip among the hundreds of thousands of students who filed into test centers Saturday. Some felt confident due to their performances on Preliminary SATs they took as juniors, or because of follow-up tutorial help. PSATs are scheduled to be given in October.
One such test center was at Gunn High School in Palo Alto, where a capacity turnout of 1,135 students sat down for the regular SAT.
Of those who signed up, 267 were Gunn students, 205 Palo Alto High students and 107 Menlo-Atherton High students. The rest came from 57 other high schools from a large area, and included students from France and China and many from private schools in the region.
Nationwide, hundreds of thousands of seniors were doing the same thing, struggling with the same questions, the same ticking of time, perhaps the same hopes and fears.
Most believed they were playing on the proverbial "level playing field," basing their efforts on personal study habits, honesty and diligence. Some were coached by tutors, not considered cheating but providing a clear advantage to those whose families can afford it. Those who can't afford such personalized help find they must invest time and energy -- in a community that is already concerned about the intensity of such investment.
Scott Bowers, Palo Alto schools' assistant superintendent, said while there was no special effort being made this year to emphasize or detect cheating, teachers are expected to be watchful and district policies are explicitly outlined in student handbooks. The policy is meant to "provide an environment conducive to ethical behavior," it states.
Cheating, it says, "is an obstacle to achieving these goals." It cites factors that include pressure for grades, not enough time, students taking advantage of teachers who do not monitor their classes closely, unrealistic parent expectations and inefficient study skills.
The policy does not mention peer pressure, but perhaps that is hidden under "pressure for grades.
"In any of its forms, for whatever reason, cheating denies the value of education," the policy states.
It provides a clear, if slightly legalistic-sounding, definition: "Cheating is taking (or lending) at inappropriate times a person's work, information, ideas, research, or documentation, without properly identifying the originator. It includes using unauthorized materials when testing or other acts specified in advance by the teacher."
Sounds simple, almost simplistic. But this basic guideline seems to be a severe challenge to some students, parents and even teachers who feel the need, for whatever reason, to push the limit, to gain "an edge," to climb past others in what is the ultimate failure -- a failure of ethics that no multiple-choice test can easily measure.
Perhaps the worst thing is that it will rob the students of their personal sense of honor for the rest of their lives. Perhaps they will make enough extra money to make up for that great loss. Perhaps.
Note: Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.