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Have Pencil, Will Take Your SAT for $200

• October 21, 2013 • 10:00 AM

(PHOTO: BENJAMIN CHUN/FLICKR)

When a standardized test plays such a big role in determining who gets into what college, it’s hard to tell who’s being cheated.

I took the SAT four times as four different people. Each time I carried a different state-issued ID and a crumpled-up scrap of paper with my new Social Security number written on it. The test booklet would provide the various formulas should I forget them, but not remembering my address would mean I was out 200 bucks and a wasted weekend morning. But it was easy enough to scratch out a passable signature. Identity is fluid compared to the certainty of a correctly bubbled-in Scantron.

Four SAT tests, and I was only nervous for my own. Getting into a good college is important.

I wasn’t scared of getting caught. One dark-haired white kid looks like any other in a stamp-sized ID headshot, and no one is more disengaged than a standardized-test proctor passing the time with a book of crossword puzzles. More than I that, I believed that if I were caught I wouldn’t get in much trouble. Immaculate teenage logic. Why would I face consequences? I am merely a tool being used to do a job. Do they jail the car after a DUI? Execute the gun after a murder? No, clearly the weight of the College Board would come down on the criminal mastermind, the one whose plan I was executing while they were sleeping in on this Saturday morning.

I don’t think cheating is wrong when it takes place within an immoral framework that encourages and rewards it. The system is the bad guy.

I didn’t get caught, and I’ve never felt guilty. This is the most common and unsatisfying sort of cheating story, one without a moral.

I TEST WELL. I’VE always tested well, in a cutthroat educational system where testing well is the single greatest skill you can have. I tested into a high school where a standardized test is the only factor in admission, and into my magnet middle school, and even into my advanced grade school program. I don’t take particular pride in it, never particularly worked at it, and it didn’t translate to my grades. But it’s enough of a fact for many of my high school classmates to have known it. One of whom had the notion that my talent shouldn’t be squandered on me.

We settled on $200. The score came back within a few weeks, and it was high. (Ivy League high, as it would turn out.) Feeling as little shame as I did, he told one of his friends about it, the friend approached me, and I had another $200, paid in hundreds from his birthday money because his parents wouldn’t let him have an ATM card. The score was even better than the first.

Then, my close friend asked me if I’d take his SAT for him. I said no. I didn’t want him to risk getting in trouble. No hard feelings, and it didn’t come up again. He got into his first-choice school. We’ve since lost touch, and I never asked about it, but I’d like to believe he spent his $200 on something useful.

I took my own SAT. Had the Social Security number memorized for that one, at least. A friend later asked if I had worked harder on the test when it was my own score at risk. I said no, but that was a lie.

I did well on my test, but it wasn’t the best score of the four. This remains one of two regrets I still carry from the whole matter. My own score was higher than the first I had taken, and higher than the fourth that I would take that fall, but not as high as the second. My best result belonged to someone else. I should have charged him extra.

I took a go at writing classmates’ college essays, too, but petered out quickly. Not because they had to be overly personalized (what were the schools going to do, fact check them upon acceptance?) but because they weren’t graded. How would I know how well I did without objective feedback? If I was going to help someone cheat, it would be because I was good at something and enjoyed getting proof of it. Ethics bend to validation.

THERE HAVE BEEN SAT cheating scandals since I graduated. One, in Maryland, saw students suspended or expelled. Another, on Long Island, saw arrests and criminal charges brought. Reading the news reports gave me a pit in my stomach. The students had paid up to $3,600 for the service. I had charged only $200. This is my second regret, and it is by far the stronger of the two. I hadn’t even considered the market value of my skills, but was just happy to have some extra spending cash that went mostly to CDs. $3,600 a pop would have been a significant chunk to put toward my tuition and would have justified my actions to any impartial observer. Breaking rules for money is universally understandable. It doesn’t make bank robbers or crooked investors any less evil, but no one ever questions why they do it.

All three of my classmates went to good colleges and have good jobs. None of them would speak to me about the tests for this piece. I wonder if they feel bad about it. I hope not. They don’t need absolving. I often write about the scam of the NCAA, where everyone gets rich off the backs of unpaid, indentured labor. When I write about an athlete in trouble for taking money on the side, I don’t blame the player. I don’t think cheating is wrong when it takes place within an immoral framework that encourages and rewards it. The system is the bad guy.

(Every 17-year-old believes this axiomatically. Authority is there for the subverting.)

My classmates were smart kids who would have gotten into perfectly good schools on their own. But they were terrified by the educational mantra that a few tens of points on an SAT can mean the difference between washing dishes and running Wall Street. The tyranny of the standardized test drives students to extremes. Some go to test prep; others test-takers. Not sitting for the exam didn’t make these three kids any less smart, just as doing well on them didn’t make me any smarter. Standardized tests only measure your aptitude for passing tests. By cheating and cheating well, my classmates figured out how to beat the system at its own shallow game. I filled in the bubbles, but they earned their high scores.

Barry Petchesky
Barry Petchesky is an editor at Deadspin, and lives in New York City. He did not get into his first-choice college.

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