Monday, May 5, 2014

Cheating on the college entrance exams

My kid went off to a prestigious college. He came home for Christmas break convinced that he was one of the few people on the planet who didn’t cheat on his college entrance exams. Apparently, everyone there had a story about his cousin’s boyfriend’s sister who cheated on the exam by doing fill-in-the-cheating-method-here. Some of the stories sounded rather unlikely to me, but the news at the time was all about that kid in ….New York was it? …who made a gazillion dollars impersonating other students and taking their exams for them.

In May of 2013 I took the SAT II Math Level 2 exam and I assure you, none of the cheating techniques would have worked. That’s not to say they never work, but the cheating techniques I hear about all depend upon having a dishonest or incompetent proctor. How prevalent is that? I don’t know. I do know that if your testing strategy depends entirely on having a bad proctor, you are likely to run into trouble.

I was recently asked to review a book entitled SAT SNEAK ATTACK: How Computer Geniuses Hack, Beat and Cheat America's Most Feared Exam by Peter Wayner. At 33 pages, it would make a better magazine or newspaper article than it does a book. The gist of it is this: 1. Poor pay causes the proctors to do a bad job. (There are no statistics on the percent of proctors doing a bad job, but since they are all paid poorly I suppose we are supposed to assume that they all are therefore doing a bad job.) 2. Because the proctors are not paying attention you can hide helpful information in your calculator, such as a dictionary. (Having your calculator out at all during the verbal sections is forbidden, so this requires a very inattentive proctor.) 3. You can also hide a program that helps solve math problems, although, based on the description, it sounded to me like this particular help would only be useful for students who would otherwise score very low in the math section. 4. Large numbers of students are cheating using this method. (Again, no actual statistics. This is based on anecdotes from college students.) 5. The author personally alerted the ETS to this egregious problem and they metaphorically rolled their eyes. 6. This means that the math help program is apparently “legal” and any test-taker would be stupid not to avail himself of this advantage.

The SAT was designed in such a way that you do not need a calculator AT ALL. You are allowed to use a calculator because too many high school students think they can’t do math without one, and because they aren’t really testing you on arithmetic anyway. The top test-takers know that using your calculator as little as possible will actually help you go faster in the math section. Spending time and money downloading some program that will solve triangles for you is pretty silly. The triangles on the SAT can nearly always be solved in your head. In the time it would take to practice using the program, you could just practice the math in the first place. But I guess then you wouldn’t have a fun anecdote about how you cheated the SAT.


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  2. Most of the students who are reading this are looking to score 700+--many are hoping for an 800. So you're probably right, the calculator programs wouldn't be much help for these students. However, I can assure that for MOST students, the programs are absolutely a godsend! BTW the programs are legal and they can be a tremendous help if you have the right ones. I'm an SAT tutor and I generally advise my students to use the calculator more rather than less. IF you really know how to use the TI-84, you can do some real damage on the SAT by just knowing how to use a few key buttons. And if you've really practiced using the graphing calculator, you can do almost any problem in under one minute--most in under 30 seconds. Yet, the biggest reason I advise my students to use the calculator is that it DRAMATICALLY reduces careless, arithmetic errors, which is one of the biggest score downers that I've seen.

  3. Interesting perspective! Most of the tutors I know FORBID the use of the calculator on the SAT. I allow it, although not to reduce errors. I find it makes students feel better, and that's no small thing on a high stakes test. To get them to a point where they could take it without a calculator we would need to work together for many months and most of my time with them is much shorter than that. Of course, all of that will change in a few months when part of the test will be calculator inactive and a calculator could be necessary for the rest of it.