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Beyond Cheating on Long Island

As more information emerges about the SAT-cheating scandal on Long Island, it has become clear that this isn’t a story about kids.  Parents and school officials have gone off the rails.  As the NYT reports, parents did nothing as their children paid stand-ins as much as $3,600 to catapult their scores into the 2100 range; school officials knew that cheating was happening, but refused to act as long as there were no obvious scandals; and test administrators convinced themselves that a female student could look like this.

Many of the fraudulent test-takers’ parents were community leaders:

The suspected test takers came from prominent, respected families, some of them in financial distress — among the five facing felony charges were the sons of a well-known lawyer, the president of the local library board and a wealthy philanthropic family.

Maybe the parents rather than the kids should be standing there in handcuffs, facing jail time.  As there are not many high school students in this country who a) have $3,600 in spare change on hand and b) are willing to pay that kind of money for an SAT score, it is obvious that in virtually every case the parents of these young people did more than stand by.  These parents are bad; they are ruining the moral character of their own kids while doing their best to steal a place in a prestigious college from honest ones.

They need to feel the ugliness of their behavior — for their own sake, for their kids’, in justice to those they wronged, and for the sake of community morals and national health.  One hopes some of them go to court on charges of contributing to the delinquency of a minor; there may well be other charges to file and Via Meadia wouldn’t cry if that happened. Large fines, enormous legal bills, harrowing anxiety, public humiliation, perhaps some jail time: a suitable lesson both for parents and offspring that cheating is wrong. Prosecutors who follow up on this will be doing public service; if outbreaks of mass fraud like this aren’t stepped on, hard, others will yield to temptation.

These parents should be sweating bullets.  If any of them are involved in custody battles with exes, they should be ready to help their kids pack.  No court in America would ignore this kind of behavior in making custody decisions; parents who do this are completely unfit.  An ex unhappy with current custody arrangmenents now has the perfect opportunity to seek redress; children need to be removed from homes where lying and fraud are OK.

They should worry about their jobs (as should the teachers and officials who turned blind eyes to this mess).  People who behave in this way are not fit to exercise public or private jobs involving character or trust.  If parents teach their own children to bribe, to lie and to cheat, what else do they think is OK?

I would advise any plaintiff’s lawyer in the region to follow this story closely; if an employer has employees who do this kind of thing and that employer keeps them on staff after this, the employer is arguably showing negligence that could result in extremely large legal judgments down the road.  To fire these people also sends a strong message to your other employees that dishonesty cannot be countenanced.

Certainly no financial firm can keep somebody like this on staff; disbarment would be an appropriate penalty for lawyers who push their kids down this road.  It is also unclear that a person who behaves in this way should be allowed to practice medicine.  There is a lot of Medicare and Medicaid fraud in this country; we’ve just uncovered some suspects.

For the rest of us, this should be a reminder of the importance that faith in God is the best foundation for a happy and peaceful life.  Faith in God is not just about keeping people honest when no one is looking.  It is also about the belief that God has a plan for your life and that if you do your honest best, whatever comes is where you were meant to be.  Going to Podunk in accordance with God’s plan will have a better outcome than cheating your way into Harvard.  Material success is a good thing but not the only thing, and a life built on fraud won’t be happy.

All this said, it is still true that the scandal points to the absurd overvaluation that America gives the imprimatur from blue chip schools.  Via Meadia wants national exams that would allow students from less famous or non-traditional schools to demonstrate that a hardworking kid at Wayne State can come out of college better educated than a lazy wastrel from the Ivy League.  The absence of such recognized credentials is what gives prestigious degrees excessive weight in the job market, and this system is not only dysfunctional but morally wrong.  (Of course those exams would have to have procedures in place to discourage and punish cheats.)

America’s greatest treasure is the integrity of our people; without that both our liberty and our prosperity will not last.  That integrity must be vindicated and defended in every generation; if it isn’t, the whole country will go down the tubes.

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  • Mogden

    Your concern is admirable, but I fear you are at least 30 years too late. The idea that the community, business, and government leaders of America have integrity is laughable on its face.

  • Jim.

    Agreed. Consequences must be imposed, and faced.

    Then comes the hard part… judging true penitence, and granting deserved absolution. Seven years is the traditional span for bankrupts. What for fraudsters? Too often, prison is a black mark forever, not a place to repay a debt to society.

    There is both evil here (that must be punished, and prevented) and good here (that must be preserved, and encouraged.) Our mechanisms for both are broken. How do we repair them?

    Shame and guilt have acquired such a bad name in this country that we have sought to either eliminate both, or only use them in “unforgivable” cases, where we can impose them with a clear (vacant?) conscience. Forgiveness is either too easy, or unthinkable.

    From suffering comes endurance, from endurance comes character, and from character, hope. Modern times have attempted to eliminate suffering and skip straight to hope. This has eliminated character, and society is seeing the consequences.

    If we want to rebuild the character of this country, (perhaps one youth at a time), we need to make sure that a) these crimes are punished, and b) after enduring that punishment, we have a way for the truly penitent to come back to the straight and narrow and be forgiven.

    This is not easy. The West has been wrestling with these issues for half a millenium at least. (Luther’s thesis 39: It is most difficult, even for the very keenest theologians, at one and the same time to commend to the people the abundance of grave and the need of true contrition.) But our secular educational system has hamstrung our ability to even have this debate effectively, by disallowing religious thought from our public educational discourse.

    We’re a long way from dealing with this constructively, and a lot needs to change — particularly, bringing back historical Christian thought into our school system — before we can do so.

  • Kenny

    “It is also about the belief that God has a plan for your life and that if you do your honest best, whatever comes is where you were meant to be.”

    This may be so but the cheaters will say “God helps those who help themselves.”

    Taking God out of the public schools help create this type of immoral behavior both in the students …. and in their parents as God was expelled over a half a century ago.

    It’s to your credit, Mr. Mead, that you brought God into the picture. And it should be noted that, according to the Bible, wisdom starts with the fear of God, and cheaters should fear God because lying against the 10 Commandments — Commandments that are banned from our illustrious public schools.

  • dave.s.

    Blair Hornstine is practicing law with her dad today (Hornstine Wertheimer & Pelloni LLC), after going to St Andrews and William and Mary Law. The NYTimes is full of news of Chinese kids who are in US schools, with their essays written by ‘admissions counselors’. So why should these kids have feared consequences?

  • Jim.

    “the abundance of GRACE”, not “the abundance of grave”.

    How are the interns coming on those edit buttons, WRM?

  • John Burke

    Aren’t there already national exams that enable fair comparisions of Wayne State and Yale grads — GSEs, LSATs, MCATs, etc.? To be sure, not everyone takes such tests, but I don’t know that employers of newly minted BAs tilt much toward Harvard or Yale bacculaureates. No question that graduating from Harvard or Yale Law, Columbia med school, or Wharton Finance gives you a leg up on grads of professional and graduate schools of less prestige but by and large, that edge is justified by long experience.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @John Burke: Those exams are for the next level of school. I’d like to see a national baccalaureate exam in different fields that tested students at a BA and MA proficiency level, giving them a score they can show an employer. GPA’s are pretty meaningless and curriculums vary so widely that the only indicator an employer really has is the prestige of the college rather than the academic record or accomplishments of the student.

  • Scott

    I sense you miss public humiliation in the stocks in the village square.

    I do think you make a persuasive case that fear of public shame is still a greater deterrent for most people than whatever actual fine or jail term is possible.

    Those that claim that everyone is a crook and without integrity need to get out more. This country is still populated by many caring people trying to do what is right and that includes our young people. We may be wandering a bit at the moment but that is more a failure of top leadership than a collapse of our moral order.

    I was at my church last night making “fun” phone calls to members as part of our annual pledge drive. The number of activities and meetings going on in that building reflect on the large mass of people trying to do what is right. For some it is religion and for others there it was more a sense that we all have to do our part.

    Those that think that the current times have somehow sunk to a new low probably should get a better feel of history. There has always been evil and it is only kept in check when people such as WRM call it out even in its banal forms such as cheating on tests.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @Scott: No call from VM for a return of the pillory — though I don’t think the current reliance on prison for small and non-violent offenses is much of an improvement.

  • dearieme

    I am but an ignorant foreigner. Would someone pleaese decode this for me?

    “Many of the fraudulent test-takers’ parents were community leaders:

    The suspected test takers came from prominent, respected families, some of them in financial distress — among the five facing felony charges were the sons of a well-known lawyer, the president of the local library board and a wealthy philanthropic family.”

  • gooch mango

    This scandal perfectly illustrates that much of what the “higher-education-is-a-bubble” crowd claims is true: college has become just an overpriced signaling mechanism, and no longer is an efficient conduit of higher knowledge… and these kids’ parents know it.

    If the degrees from the Ivies were actually a signifier of elite skills and superior knowledge, no parent would even WANT their offspring to cheat their way in… what would be the point? Just to fail out after a stress-filled year? To see their child turned into a gaunt, hollow-eyed burn-out with thinning hair and bleeding gums… at the tender age of twenty?

    These parents know that if their kid can get a degree from State U, they can most likely get one from an Ivy with just a wee bit more effort. Since America has decayed into a credentialist technocracy, run by technocrats for the benefit of technocrats, it makes evolutionary sense to lie, cheat, and steal your spawn’s way onto the technocratic fast-track. And the Ivy diploma is just the ticket.

  • Anthony

    WRM, corrosive corruption of values and the over hyped message of material success have rendered us in many ways void of moral compass; as a society, we’ve lost our ethical basis (you are correct faith remains central). You infer that the moral problems begin at home and I agree – scandal choices (cheating, covering up, conspiring, condoning, etc.) are collectively detrimental to long term health of country/society.

    We now have a culture that places a large value on indulgence of self interest over the value of integrity – self interest becoming virtuous. WRM, ours is a society desperately in need of “purposeful living” and its societal benefits. Ethical/moral standards and the belief therein by any viable society precludes Long Island SAT scandal while sustaining society’s future.

  • Toni

    Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it won’t be unbuilt in a day.

    “An ex unhappy with current custody arrangmenents now has the perfect opportunity to seek redress; children need to be removed from homes where lying and fraud are OK.”

    On one hand, this may be hard to get by nonjudgmental “everything is relative” judges. (No pun intended.) On the other, removing children from those homes might not be in their best interests. E.g., what if the other spouse has an anger management problem? Some people are so angry and spiteful that custody battles are about vengeance, not the kids.

    “I would advise any plaintiff’s lawyer in the region to follow this story closely; if an employer has employees who do this kind of thing and that employer keeps them on staff after this, the employer is arguably showing negligence that could result in extremely large legal judgments down the road.”

    We don’t need another epidemic like we have in medical malpractice. (Pun intended.) Trial lawyers go forum-shopping. South Texas is a mecca for them, but less so for medical malpractice now. Texas has a law that you have to bring your lawsuit within two years, and pain & suffering damages max out at $250,000. I’d say that’s tough but fair.

    But Texas doctors still have to practice “defensive medicine.” Why an MRI instead of an X-ray? So if something goes wrong, the doctor can prove she or he went to great lengths to ensure the best outcome.

    Do we really want to further crowd already overcrowded courts? Businesses already practice defensive business; I know from friends that Exxon keeps extensive employee records so that if they have to fire someone, they can prove it was for cause. If anyone thinks businesses invest in training employees and extensive record-keeping so they can cavalierly fire them one day, well, this is someone who can’t be reasoned with.

    I’d say inviting lawsuits over employee misbehavior engaged in off the job is an example of being careful of what you wish for.

    “Via Meadia wants national exams that would allow students from less famous or non-traditional schools to demonstrate that a hardworking kid at Wayne State can come out of college better educated than a lazy wastrel from the Ivy League.”

    An excellent idea! Texas has its own version of this. Starting in 1998, Texas began admitting the top 10% of high school graduates to its public colleges. See (The main Austin campus of UT hates this; it wants to be an elite school. I don’t think they’ve succeeded in capping the number of 10% students they have to take.)

  • JKP


    Having recently (2007) graduated a prestigious private prep school, I can say you are barely scratching the surface of this issue. What those parents did might be illegal, but many other parents are buying their kids’ way into college through equally unethical means.

    Tactic 1: Parents find “learning specialists,” who will diagnose their kids with “learning disabilities.” Because these parents are spending, in many cases, four figures to get their kids tested, these hack psychologists will at the very minimum diagnose them with ADD or ADHD. Diagnoses in hand, these kids will receive anywhere from an additional 50% to double time on their tests, INCLUDING national standardized tests. In high school, I felt like every other week another kid in my class showed up with his/her “recently discovered” ADHD. Many of them would later admit in college that they never needed the extra time, but the diagnostic test was easy to fake and they wanted the same edge other kids were getting. Not only is it outrageous that students are receiving additional test time for fabricated conditions, but it’s a privilege only the wealthy can afford.

    Less unethical, but more outrageous from an inequality standpoint… is how much money wealthy parents spend on their kids’ SAT/ACT prep. In my graudating class of ~100, I would estimate 10% spent well over $10,000 in just private SAT/ACT tutoring. In extreme cases, I know families where that figure topped $50,000. However, over half spent more than $1000 on classes and/or private tutoring sessions. (I don’t have hard numbers, but I know over half my class did it, and they were using very prominent, expensive local tutors… not Kaplan-type orgs.) These are luxuries most American families cannot afford, and I would imagine the rise of test-prep is more the cause of recent SAT score inflation than improvemnents in the public education system.

    In recent years, private college counseling and professional essay proofreading services have grown tremendously.

    I really wish these issues would garner more publicity, as universities are either oblivious or willfully ignorant of them (my guess is the latter). America’s wealthy have learned how to game the college admissions process, and universities need to adjust accordingly to increase meritocracy in the system.

  • JKP


    The Texas top 10% rule has been a disaster. Have you seen what it did to UT-Austin’s first year retention rate? Admitting hordes of wholly unprepared students from inner city schools is simply a recipe for failuure. Has it improved racial and socio-economic diversity? Yes. But the top 2-10% at many of Texas’ public schools lack the academic competitiveness to survive even a semester at the Austin campus, or any other universities of its caliber.

    The dumbest kids at my high school would normally would end up at schools like Arizona or Ole Miss (not to knock those universities, just saying my prep school’s reputation in many cases was sufficient to carry a poorly-performing student into a brand-name school). In a number of cases, some of the least talented students from my high school and its rivals, would drop out and go to a local public school, easily finishing in the top 1-2%. An older family friend who flunked out of my prep school finished third in her class at a local public school.

    Moreover, my high school didn’t rank because it wanted to encourage students to challenge themselves… and not worry about how a slate of honors classes might affect their class standing. Talent aside, 99% of my high school was more academically prepared for UT-Austin than the top 2% of most of the state’s public schools. Yet the majority of our applicants got “CAPed,” where they needed to attend another of UT’s campuses for at least a year and maintain a 3.0 before transferring into the Austin campus.

    I did not apply to Texas myself, but I doubt that even applying as a second generation Longhorn I would have been accepted outright…. and I attended a (for what it’s worth) US News top 20 university. You can argue the 10% system is leveling the playing field for those that can’t afford to live in wealthy suburbs or attend private schools, but my observations tell me its only driving talent away from the state.

  • Kansas Scott

    I find JKP’s comments enlightening (they also happen to be well written). The rich have always had obvious advantages yet I do think our education system has done far better than others to reward merit in spite of those advantages. However, as JKP points out, there are many miles yet to go on the trail to anything resembling a genuine meritocracy.

    Even in the large public high school that my kids attend there are wide differences in resources available to different kids to prepare for the next level. Just the fact that my wife and I are both third-generation college graduates gives our kids a tremendous leg up in simple awareness of what is possible and what is expected. I suppose some of the advantages are genetic but many of them are circumstances and luck.

    As I understand VM’s call for a national test, it is one to take place after college not as a replacement for the current SAT/ACT beasts. I’m sure that those graduating from college would be tickled pink with the idea of one more hugely important test but it would be interesting. Yet, with my worry that too much emphasis is already placed on test scores for college admittance, I wouldn’t want a post-college exam to become another whipping post for bright but poor-testing students.

    Something that would be hard to ever do much about is how people (myself included) tend to reward those who have followed similar paths that they themselves took. It validates their own decisions and work. It’s rarely (I think) intentional but it is real. Someone graduating from Harvard is more likely to hire someone also from Harvard than some “lesser” school.

    The one thing I do know is that, while a true meritocracy may well never be attained, we will only get closer if it stays a focused goal.

  • rintn

    That should all happen. It won’t.

    In the Atlanta cheating scandal, in which 180 teachers and administrators helped thousands of student cheat on standardized tests, 6 teachers were suspended for 2 years. Two administrators had their “certificates revoked”. Whatever that means.

  • Cal

    I don’t disagree with your post. A couple points, though:

    The kids that *paid* for the test takers are not facing jail time If you made the parents serve what the kids serve, they’d get a misdemeanor fine. The kids who *took* the test are facing jail time. From your link:

    “hose accused of fraudulently taking tests face felony charges of scheming to defraud, as well as misdemeanor charges of falsifying business records and criminal impersonation.”


    “Because those accused of paying test takers were 19 or under and face only misdemeanor charges, their identities will not be made public, a spokesman for Ms. Rice said.”

    Thus, at no point will the parents of the payers face jail time, even if they are held responsible for the actions of their children.

    These are extremely rich families; therefore, your contention that the parents *must* have known isn’t credible. $3600 is nothing to a really rich family; it’s quite believable that the parents didn’t know.

    I used to be a full time test prep instructor and still do it full time. In my experience, most SAT sites are very secure. However, in high pressure areas (those dominated by Asian or very very rich communities), I’ve heard more than one report of really lax test security–not just for the SAT, but the AP tests as well.

    The way to fix this is not to force the criminal system to fix blame the parents (unless the parent was directly involved, of course) but to force the test security to be responsible. The obvious fix will take place immediately, I think: tests will be considerably more secure.

    But even more importantly, the testing companies (ETS and College Board both) should be required to permanently flag a cheater–whether caught or not. If someone comes in under your name, pretending to be you, then all your test scores before and after are permanently flagged, thus rendering you close to radioactive so far as college admissions go.

    That will fix the problem more than blaming the parents–even if they are, in some cases,complicit.

  • Jack

    Public shaming is necessary on this issue. Fetch forth the stocks!

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