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Michael Miller


By Michael Miller
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Precedent and Prosecution

State Senator Ken LaValle of Suffolk County has been Chairman of the Higher Education Committee since before I entered high school during the Carter Administration. Early in his career, he admirably sponsored the Truth in Testing law, but later he developed better personal relations with the Educational Testing Service, the private organization which runs the SAT with almost a free hand. He’s pushing to repeal a state law that provides minimal due process to students suspected of cheating on standardized tests. Both he and D.A. Rice think that in situations in which there is evidence of cheating, every school to which suspected students may apply should be notified. Every parent, too.

We normally don’t hold 16-year olds who make mistakes, even big ones, accountable for the rest of their lives.

D.A. Rice insists that the possible cheaters “may have kept qualified students from getting into their dream school.” There are several unprovable assumptions at work in that one phrase. Unfortunately, I don’t have space to address the college industry, testing industry, obsessive parent industry and U.S. News and World Report all in one column.

I guess the D.A. is going to prosecute young people who don’t make the academic grade but get into schools anyway because of family connections. All those legacies, some of whom have gone on to be President, took away a “dream school” slot, maybe from your child.

In fact, if you accept her premise, then there is no logical difference between cheating on the SAT and cheating on a math quiz or getting away with cutting a class.

So when D.A. Rice brags that, “this is the first time that anyone in my position has actually prosecuted this kind of fraud,” maybe she should chillax for one minute and think about why that is. It appears that something very wrong has happened, but is it truly a crime against New York, and is the courtroom and possibly prison where we want to correct it?

Actually, when D.A. Rice went on about “thousands of dollars changing hands” to get higher test results, I thought at first she was referring to all the pricey test preparation courses and private coaching that skews results. She was not.

These ETS exams mostly test how well students take these exams. They can learn how to increase the chances of picking the answer for which ETS is looking (which is not necessarily the most correct answer). A very low or very high score probably says something about a student’s potential to do first-year work in college. Not much more. The SAT should be optional, but even the preparation business is worth well over three billion dollars a year.

So our D.A. is going to carry the water for Big Testing. Well, since Mr. Spitzer, every A.G. and D.A. tries to be the Sheriff of something.

It would be far more productive if this incident threw a spotlight on problems with standardized testing, and with the whole “dream school” mentality that only adds to the national stress pandemic. Everyone is pressured, everyone is stressed out, millions are trying to self-medicate to get through it, and we can’t have an honest moment of public conversation about any of it. Instead, it’s another simplistic tale of retribution and punishment.

We’ve shrugged away massive financial services fraud, the end of habeas corpus and so many other legal catastrophes. Will we give lifetime social death penalties to cheating teenagers?

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: