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What should I make of the college admissions scandal?

The College Admissions Scandal: The SAT, ACT, Subject Tests…and What Lies Ahead 


We are publishing a special edition of our biweekly newsflash to discuss the recent scandal in college admissions. There’s considerable coverage of the story that discusses every angle of the process. We’ll leave thoughts about how this story will affect athletic recruitment, legacy polices, independent college consultants, the impending Harvard decision, etc. to the experts in those areas.

We’re focused on how these families cheated on tests and what it could mean for testing in the future.

Summary: In the criminal complaint, federal prosecutors describe two ways that parents and Rick Singer––head of an advising firm referred to as “The Key”––defrauded universities from 2011 to 2019. In addition to bribing college coaches and faking student athletic profiles, the defendants cheated on the SAT, ACT, and SAT Subject Tests. Most commonly, Singer advised his clients to fraudulently gain multi-day testing accommodations so they could register to test at one of two schools where he paid proctors to cheat. At these schools, proctors took tests for students, helped students as they tested, or––most deceptively––fixed students’ answer sheets after tests were complete. This third method ensured that not even the students knew the scores were illegitimate. Parents paid $15,000 to $75,000 for this cheating service, which Singer claims to have successfully committed 20–30 times.

Much of the test-related commentary to the scandal concerns negative repercussions for students with disabilities. In a statement, the Learning Disabilities Association of America argued that the scandal “perpetuat[es] the misperceptions that many students who obtain accommodations on college admissions do not have disabilities and that this abuse is widespread.” People fear students are less likely both to apply for and to be approved for accommodations they need. Both ACT and the College Board have defended the security of their accommodations process, and the criminal complaint indicates that their vetting weeded out a few unscrupulous applicants. In fact, ACT denied one student’s application twice and only approved it on the third try at the request of the FBI, which had reached out to ACT for cooperation in the investigation.

  •  Students applying for accommodationsACT and College Board may be more careful when vetting accommodation requests, but most of the pressure will come at the school level.Although this story puts pressure on the College Board and ACT tovet applications more thoroughly in the short term, both organizations have been pressured for years––by the Department of Justice and states that contract them for state-mandated testing—to approve more accommodations. With pressure coming from both sides, ACT and College Board may increase the rigor of the vetting process without making it significantly harder to apply for accommodations. Another level in the vetting process to worry about: high school coordinators. These coordinators, who help families apply for accommodations with ACT and the College Board, are the first line of defense against fraudulent applications.It’s very likely that high school coordinators will become extra vigilant. In fact, in just the short week since the scandal became public, we’ve heard of cases in which school coordinators are requiring extra testing and paperwork before helping a family apply for accommodations.
  • Students who travel to test: It’s possible that the ACT and the College Board will scrutinize testers who travel to take the exam, especially if they achieve extremely high scores with only one attempt at the test. In order to cheat, students in this scandal who should have tested at their home schools instead took exams at a different test center, often across the country. We imagine that both organizations could easily identify such trends in testing databases and use them as grounds for flagging scores.
  • Proctor policies: Corrupt proctors could be more pervasive than either ACT or the College Board has revealed. In terms of test security, proctors have always been one of the weakest links for both organizations. Schools that serve as test sites autonomously select proctors without much vetting from ACT or the College Board, but it only takes a few bad actors to undermine test security. The College Board and ACT should confront this issue directly through better vetting and new protocols for test-site security.
  • Computer-based exams: One of the best ways to fix the proctor problem is to digitize the SAT and ACT.Had the exams been digital, a computer would have flagged the cheating students’ tests for suspicious activity and detected that a student’s answers were entered by a corrupt proctor after the exam. ACT has implemented computer-based testing internationally, and SAT claims it’s going to digitize within a few years––but for now the domestic market remains untouched. This scandal could make both organizations move faster. It will also encourage them to make digital tests accessible for students with a variety of testing accommodations. (Currently, the computer-based ACT is only accessible for students with 1.5 extra time.)
  • Test-optional movement: With elite schools––and university admissions generally––under scrutiny, colleges may feel the pressure to secure a PR win. And for schools that financially rely on admissions factors such as legacy policies and donations, going test optional might be the easiest way to do so. Many elite schools have waited on the sidelines since the University of Chicago went test optional last year, but this story could convince some to make the switch as early as this summer.
  • Increased cheating: We may see an increase in students and families willing to cheat on exams. You would think that stories like this are a cautionary tale about cheating, but often they lead people to think “everyone’s doing it.” This rationalization can make some people feel it’s ok to cheat or that they need to cheat in order to compete. In fact, a poll out today shows that 1/3 of all parents would pay someone to cheat on standardized tests. Everyone in the test process will need to stay alert to ensure that student work doesn’t cross the line.

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To reach Liz Benedict at Don’t Sweat the Essay, email me or phone (East Coast): Liz@DontSweatTheEssay.com ~~ 1-855-99-ESSAY