Go, Teen Vogue!

Here’s an important story in Teen Vogue about how the SAT and ACT are manipulated — and mostly, about how neither company (the College Board’s Educational Testing Service and the ACT)has taken decisive action to guarantee the validity of these tests. Little tweaks will not do it!

This is a good read! You’ll see me quoted toward the end of the piece (in bold), about the flawed accommodations policy of these two companies have implemented since 2003 ( basically, continuing to time these tests (for still unexplained reasons)… but not notifying test score users when extra time is given to some students) and how that has played out in the last 16 years. An unfortunate and sad tale, as I see it.


Why It’s So Easy to Cheat on College Admissions Tests Like the SAT

Schooled is a series that explores the nuances of the American education system by reporter Zach Schermele, an incoming freshman at Columbia University.


When the college admissions scandal was first unveiled by the Justice Department in March, the scintillating story now known as “Operation Varsity Blues” grabbed headlines worldwide. With competition for spots at elite schools growing ever more fierce, federal prosecutors alleged that wealthy parents paid between $15,000 and $75,000 to doctor their children’s standardized test scores. That was just the tip of the iceberg in that particular scandal, which was dramatic enough to get green-lit as a Lifetimemovie.

But to students in the thick of an increasingly cutthroat college admissions game — admission rates at top schools are still dropping to record or near-record lows — the pervasiveness of cheating on standardized tests was never a surprise.

“Going into my first SAT, a kid I knew asked me if he could cheat off me,” Caroline Skoglund, a rising senior at Darien High School in Connecticut, told Teen Vogue. Caroline refused. She had spent over 100 hours studying for the test, often working through dinner and sacrificing going out with her friends. It wasn’t her first encounter with students who wanted to cheat on arguably one of the most important tests in a high schooler’s life.

“I’ve heard kids walk out of the test and brag to their friends about how they copied answers from someone else,” she said. Caroline took the test four times before scoring in the 99th percentile — an achievement she’s proud of. But she also recognizes what she called a “frustrating” truth: “Many people simply cheat.”

Though some predicted Operation Varsity Blues would transform the way testing security is managed by the billion-dollar organizations that administer standardized tests, critics say real, substantive change has not been made in response. They say a lack of transparency from the largest test administrators in the U.S. — the College Board, which decides how the SAT and other tests are administered, as well as ACT — has led to uncertainty about how prevalent cheating really is on their exams.

One college student from California, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told Teen Vogue that cheating on the SAT four years ago helped her get into a top-40 university. Because the exam was (and still is) administered across the U.S. on the same day, test-takers on the East Coast finished before she did, allowing her to find the answers on her phone during bathroom breaks.

“The East Coast kids are out and will start discussing questions on College Confidential,” she said, referring to an online college admissions forum. The student claimed proctors could neither stop her from using the restroom nor pat her down to feel for a cell phone — “so there was virtually no way [the proctor] could know.” Technology of any form is technically prohibited inside the testing center, and students’ scores can be canceled on any college admissions exam if proctors catch them using devices like cell phones during the test.

Students in different time zones still take College Board–sanctioned exams like the SAT, SAT subject tests, and AP tests within a similar window, meaning the time-zone vulnerabilities she used to cheat are still exploitable. Two different types of AP tests are usually given on the same date, secretly divided into two sets across testing centers, experts told Teen Vogue. According to Brooke Hanson, CEO and founder of SuperTutorTV, in cases with which she’s familiar, “all students nationwide get the same form of the test” on October, March, and May SAT test dates, with some exceptions for the “experimental” questions. Hanson spoke from personal experience and admitted individuals might get different tests if they’ve requested accommodations, and in general, cases involving accommodations, test-takers over the age of 18, and potential “foul play” may result in further scrutiny.

Students can take the ACT anywhere the test is offered in the U.S., and although the College Board would not independently verify similar rules for the SAT, testing experts told Teen Vogue that is still the case.

“Generally students can register for any SAT test given anywhere,” Hanson told Teen Vogue. “I’ve had students at camp in Michigan take the SAT in that state or if they’re out of town in NYC, take it there. I’ve also had international students fly to the U.S. to take the test here during the summer or on dates not offered abroad.”

Only proctors and sometimes test administrators, who are often strangers to students, are responsible for verifying their identities (unless an investigation is opened). In 2011, 20 teenagers involved in an alleged SAT cheating ring in Long Island were accused of criminal impersonation, scheming to defraud, and falsifying business records; many of them took the test outside of their own school district. In 2015, 15 Chinese students were accused of paying impostors to take tests, including the SAT, for them using fake passports at test centers in Pennsylvania. The lead defendant, who allegedly held an organizing role in the ring, later pleaded guilty; several others were deported. It is unclear whether any of the accused in either case were acquitted. But many of the exploitable rules around approved test-taking locations don’t appear to have verifiably changed.

And though high-stakes heists make big news, less sophisticated cases of cheating go virtually unnoticed. Another student, who also wished to remain anonymous, told Teen Vogue the ACT proctors at his school are “teachers who don’t really care enough to stop cheating.” According to the student, who currently attends a large public high school of several thousand students, copying from nearby answer sheets and whispering during the exam are common occurrences.

“AP exams are a joke,” he continued, referring to a test administered by the College Board and ETS. He said students are in a gym or classroom, “where every test form is the same, so cheating off the people near you is easy.”

“Parents are proctors and oblivious,” he said. The student’s school has not yet responded to Teen Vogue’s request for comment.

“The time restrictions on the ACT are way too difficult,” said another student, who told Teen Vogue he cheated on the ACT in June. The student spoke on the condition of anonymity and admitted using extra time during an ungraded portion of the test to flip back in his booklet and answer questions from the English section he hadn’t been able to finish.

“I don’t think time should be such a critical factor in a test like this, so that sort of justified cheating in my head,” he said. He claimed the extra time improved his score significantly.

Both the College Board and ACT do offer extended time to students who can show a medical history of a learning disability. Examples of affluent parents exploiting these “testing accommodations” with fraudulent doctor’s notes were widely cited in the Varsity Blues scandal, and a recent New York Times analysis found that 504 designations, which give test-takers extra time based on physical or mental impairments, are disproportionately common in rich communities. In a 2003 essay titled “Disabling the SAT,” education lawyer Miriam Kurtzig Freedman predicted that accommodations would lead to a phenomenon she called “diagnosis shopping.”

“These savvy parents now know that if they’re looking ahead to Billy or Johnny going to college and having to take the SAT or the ACT in junior year, they better get these [medical plans] in place early,” Freedman told Teen Vogue. “It’s totally dysfunctional, and it’s created by these organizations who are beholden to nobody.”

Freedman has been a vocal critic of the College Board and ACT especially after Operation Varsity Blues, calling them “extremely closed and nontransparent” organizations. Ed Colby, the senior director of media and public relations for ACT, said in a statement to Teen Vogue, “ACT takes test security very seriously, and we are continually working to enhance and enforce our test security measures.”

“We do not provide specific details about those measures for security reasons,” Colby said. A link to ACT’s website (provided by Colby) states, “We conduct extensive, and proactive analyses of our testing data in search of irregularities that could indicate misconduct.” ACT representatives also make unannounced visits to test centers and maintain a testing security hotline, according to the website.

A webpage created by the College Board after the Varsity Blues scandal erupted states the organization has since added personnel to its testing security team, among other measures. In a statement to Teen Vogue, College Board spokeswoman Jaslee Carayol would only specify one example of “an action [College Board] took in response” to Operation Varsity Blues, and added, “For security reasons, we cannot provide specifics about our approach.”

“In all but the rarest circumstances, students will take the test only at their schools or during a weekend session,” she said, referring to accommodation requests (students who do not request extra time on the test can still test anywhere in the U.S., according to testing experts). “If a student must take a test elsewhere, we will carefully confirm their need to test at an alternate location and the security of that location.”

The Educational Testing Service, which is hired by the College Board to develop and administer its exams, did not respond to Teen Vogue’s multiple requests for comment.

Whether many test-taking rules are followed, however, depends entirely on the people who proctor the tests, and while criteria do exist spelling out who can do the job, the College Board and ACT’s proctor requirements do not appear to have changed since one proctor and two test administrators were indicted as part of Operation Varsity Blues, the proctor pleading guilty. They were accused of playing various roles in falsifying students’ scores. The accused test administrators have pleaded not guilty.

“It might be smart for the test-makers to incorporate a stronger vetting process and require training,” Sam Pritchard, the director of College Prep Programs at Kaplan Test Prep, told Teen Vogue. “More oversight seems warranted in that it may prevent more cheating and also restore faith by test-takers and their parents, not to mention colleges who want to know that applicants’ scores are their own.”

Critics say that without testing representatives actively willing or knowledgeable enough to enforce the rules at the ground level, systemic cheating isn’t going to stop anytime soon.

“They certainly haven’t gone to the root cause of what their problem is,” Freedman said. “All they’re trying to do is clean up little messes here and there.”

This was originally posted on Medium