Is Test Prep a Form of Cheating?

Dan Edmonds, NoodlePro and tutor extraordinaire, discusses test prep and whether or not we can consider it cheating.

Cheating on the SAT has been in the headlines of late. We have the much reported story of cheating on Long Island, which has led to a proposed law that would make such cheating a felony in New York. We have the recent report that students are faking learning disabilities to get extended time on the SAT and ACT.

And I have to confess, sadly, that none of this comes as a surprise to me.

Any tutor who has been in the business for more than a few years has probably been approached by at least one student with the same "brilliant" idea: take my test for me!

I remember the first time it happened; I was relatively new to the business, and an LSAT student in Atlanta offered me his (brand new) Corvette if I took the test for him. I explained to him that (a) they fingerprint you at the LSAT and (b) if he got caught, he'd never be able to practice law anywhere. That dissuaded him, though nothing much assuaged my concerns about working to help someone who would make that offer to become a lawyer.

It's odd, really, when you think about it. I mean, I don't think that there's any other phase of my life in which I have been so consistently bombarded by offers to engage in illegal behavior in return for (often substantial) sums of money, especially by people who are either strangers, or with whom I have a professional relationship. So what's the deal? Why does it happen so often in this realm? Why do most of my colleagues have similar stories?

I could wax moralistic on the subject of cheating in academia. I could cite studies that cheating is on the rise in high schools. But I think that, to me, there's something that strikes a little close to home. After all, some might argue, haven't I spent the past 17 years of my life helping people cheat on standardized tests? Haven't I helped to raise it, even, to an art form?

I think there's a misapprehension out there, that test prep is somehow only about tricks and shortcuts, that it somehow allows students to get scores that they don't "deserve." Now, I could fill half a dozen blogs explaining all the problems I see with the high stakes tests we use to weigh, measure, and categorize students in the American educational system. I could point out endless flaws in the SAT, the ACT, and any of the myriad other standardized tests that form such a central part of the educational landscape in America. But "a few tricks can get you a score you don't deserve" would not lie anywhere on my list of criticisms.

Preparing for the SAT or ACT isn't much different, really, than preparing for any other test: it's a question of learning the skills that are tested (which is why a great deal of time is spent working on math, grammar, essay writing, a certain subset of critical thinking, and, in the case of the SAT, vocabulary), on the one hand; and learning how to anticipate what will be on the test (and how the makers of the test will try to trick you) on the other hand. Bright students have been anticipating how their teachers will test them for as long as there have been teachers and tests; this is the same process, simply brought to a different level because, on the one hand, it's very clear how these tests will test you, and, on the other hand, we put disproportionate importance on standardized tests.

Any good tutor will know within the first few hours of working with a student their approximate potential best score; the job of a good tutor is to help the student reach that score, and in the process, help to improve the student's critical thinking and other relevant skills. Students will come out on the other end better able to take apart almost any test, better able to anticipate how such tests are created and how test makers try to manipulate students into picking wrong answers. They will often come out of the process with some small improvement to their writing skills and vocabulary as well. They will have spent tens of hours over the course of several months studying for a high stakes test, and will have a stronger score and an improved skill set to show for their effort.

Test prep isn't some magic key that gives you a higher score just in return for a few hundred (or thousand) dollars; it's an often intensive learning process. Despite the fact that I've been helping students do this for years, I think it's a shame that we have an education system that encourages and rewards kids for spending dozens of hours preparing for the SAT or ACT. I can think of countless projects I'd rather see students dedicating their time to.

As long as we continue to put such emphasis on high stakes testing, students will search for ways to improve their scores. Some will opt for the route of rigorous test prep, and will reap the benefits that come from such a program of studies. Other will take a less ethical route and cheat sometimes even with the help of teachers!

How do you feel about high stakes test prep? Is it a good or a bad thing for America's students?

Check back next week when I take a look at how high stakes testing affects teachers.

(If you're a teacher or in the test prep industry, I'd love to get feedback on this issue and will be using it to write my next post. Please comment below and with your thoughts and experiences!)

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Previously: SAT & ACT Scheduling: An Alternate View

Next: The First Rule of Test Scores