How many times did you cheat? (A lot)

In the wake of the college admissions scandal that literally everyone was talking about last week, there was some very much expected discourse on the “New Trier Parents” Facebook page.

From what I heard, some of that discourse had to do with me. Well, it didn’t have to do with me personally, but rather the article I wrote last year on how a quarter of New Trier juniors received accommodations on standardized tests, which happened to be almost five times higher than the national average. The article touched on how some students essentially finesse their way into these accommodations, at times by faking ADHD in order to get a diagnosis from a psychiatrist.

Rather than identifying this problem and attempting to solve it, some parents took an alternative route—the route of denial. Despite a quote from a local psychiatrist saying that she “has definitely seen New Trier kids come into her office and try to fake ADHD,” and numerous quotes from students claiming they knew friends or family that had gamed the system themselves, along with other statistics, some still denied the possibility that the New Trier community could really just *let* this happen.

New Trier parents thinking that other New Trier parents don’t care about where their kid goes to college enough to get them a fake ADHD diagnosis that could vastly improve their score is like New Trier parents thinking that their kid is going on spring break to the Dominican Republic with a dozen of their friends to read books and play bingo.
While I understand that some of these parents were simply questioning how my article reflected upon students with real disabilities who needed the accommodations, which was a legitimate concern, I think it is important for our community to understand the advantages we have in the college process that don’t really seem like cheating at all, and aren’t considered to be actively “gaming the system.”

And so, I decided I would use the attention you have given me from the “famous” article I wrote last week and use it to show how, in reality, some of us really were cheating on the ACT and SAT too. I mean we aren’t actually cheating, but….you’ll understand.
Cheat #1: Congratulations! You are enrolled in one of the best non-selective public high schools in the entire country, which also probably means that you were once enrolled in some of the best middle and elementary schools in the country too. In 2017, New Trier spent $25,665.37 on each student, while the average high school in Illinois spent $13,336.64 on each student. To make it even better, Illinois spends more on education per student than any other state in the Midwest.

Cheat #2: ¡Felicitaciones! Instead of being forced to use the free Khan Academy online tutoring for the SAT, your parents decided that they would opt to use private tutoring! Despite the upwards of $165 an hour price tag (yes, it is that expensive), your family believes that the 5-7 point increase that “Academic Approach” boasts about on their website is well worth the dent.

While obviously not all students at New Trier opt to use private tutors to help them with their ACT or SAT, many of us do, as these services could make or break our acceptance into a school, or even give us more scholarship money that could easily outnumber the amount we spent on tutoring in the first place. No one calls this immoral or irresponsible, because it’s not, and we shouldn’t expect our community not to use these resources. But, when you think about it, even though it isn’t illegal, parents paying for their kids’ ACT scores to go up automatically makes the test easier for richer students, thus making the entire process—well I shouldn’t speak too soon. We are just getting started…

Cheat #3: Regardless of whether or not students are justly receiving their accommodations or not, the idea that students at New Trier are even able to get them for their given disabilities should not be taken for granted. A 2016 study from the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded that white students are nearly twice as likely to have received an ADHD diagnosis than their African-American or Latino peers by their sophomore year in high school. Contrary to what the diagnosis numbers suggest, black students are actually more likely to truly have the disorder, as those who experience adverse childhood experiences like racism and economic disadvantage that disproportionately affect black youth, have a greater likelihood of obtaining the disorder. Because only 5 percent of students nationwide receive accommodations, that likely means that there are numerous students with learning disabilities in underprivileged communities that don’t receive them at all, whether or not they have been diagnosed.

Cheat #4: Mazel Tov! Even if you’re parents refused to photoshop your body onto a rowing boat, or even if they refused to pay for private tutoring, or even if you weren’t able to get extra time, or even if you don’t go to a top-tier high-school, you still might be able to get an advantage on the ACT! Instead of not having access to specialized healthcare, you do! Now, if you might be wondering how your health and well-being could have literally anything to do with how well you would be able to do on the ACT, here are some examples.

An “Always” brand survey showed that, in the U.S., 1 out of every 5 girls misses school during their periods due to the lack of access to female hygiene products (imagine taking the ACT…on your period…without a tampon); according to the nonprofit organization, “Feeding America,” 18 percent of kids live in households without limited or uncertain availability of safe, nutritious food at some point during the year (imagine taking the ACT without eating breakfast); a recent report by the California Health Care Foundation estimated that 10 percent of the state’s poorest children have experienced a “serious emotional disturbance”—but only a fraction of them get treatment.

All I’m trying to say in this is that just like life itself, the ACT and the SAT will never be fair, and thus will never be truly “standardized.” A kid with ADHD getting extra-time can even the playing field, but considering the fact that extra-time is only offered at a few lengths, getting a little bit too much extra-time could conceivably give that student an advantage over others too. For some, there is no amount of extra-time that can make up for their disability to begin with.

While we all attempt to make the test as fair as possible, it will never be. Last year, I had to pee in the middle of the reading section of the SAT because I have a small bladder and I had to rush through the last passage. I was upset, but then I considered that, even though I had to unexpectedly go to the bathroom, I still wasn’t on my period, I still didn’t have an undiagnosed learning disability, I still had eaten a healthy breakfast that morning, I still had gone to a couple tutoring sessions, and last but not least, I was still enrolled in New Trier High School.

I didn’t mean to offend anyone while writing this, and if I had more room I would give you more evidence, but for now we should find comfort in knowing that the process isn’t fair for anyone—but we have it better than most.