Matt's Past SAT/ACT News Update

Matt O'Connor

Apr 15, 2019

In the wake of the college admissions scandal, an article in the New York Times has asked, "Is the College Cheating Scandal the ‘Final Straw’ for Standardized Tests?"

For parents desperate to boost their children’s SAT or ACT scores, the test preparation company Student-Tutor offered an enticing solution: claim a learning disability and qualify for extra time.

“This time advantage can help raise their scores significantly!” the website blared. “Some students have even reported raising their score by as much as 350+ points!”

This week’s college admissions scandal provided an instruction manual for gaming the SAT: bribe the proctor, hire a stand-in, see the right psychologist to get a signoff for more time.

The degrees to which rich and famous families may have gone to cheat on them could become a watershed moment for the rejection of standardized tests at every level of the education system — but particularly in college admissions.

“This scandal may be the final straw that tips the balance” toward a test-optional admissions system, said Robert Schaeffer, the public education director of FairTest, a group that believes the exams are racially and culturally biased. “We expect the floodgates to start opening.”

...for most families, drilling for the exams remains an expensive proposition, ranging from $299 for a self-guided study course at Kaplan to hundreds of dollars an hour for the priciest private tutors. The strongest predictor of a student’s score “is affluence of parents and education of parents,” said Steve Syverson, a vice chancellor for enrollment at the University of Washington Bothell.

The anxiety surrounding the tests, Mr. Syverson said, is premised on the myth that there are only a few schools worth fighting — and even cheating — for.

“We have a scarcity of super-elite colleges, but not a scarcity of seats at good educational institutions,” he said. His research has shown that some test-optional schools received more black and Hispanic applicants, and that students who did not submit SAT or ACT scores graduated from college at about the same rate as those who did.

Some attempts to improve the testing system have had unintended consequences. In 2003, the College Board stopped flagging test takers who were given special accommodations such as extended time, reasoning that it could lead to discrimination against students with disabilities. admissions experts said that in some communities, it is well known which psychologists will provide paperwork attesting to disabilities like A.D.H.D. — for thousands of dollars.

“Parents have figured out that this is a freebie,” said Miriam Kurtzig Freedman, a special education lawyer. “This was a scandal waiting to happen.”

Ms. Freedman said she has noticed parents asking for additional time on tests for their children as early as middle school, to avoid suspicion by requesting it right before the SAT or ACT.

Learning disability designations allowed the children of parents indicted in the Varsity Blues scandal to take exams in particular rooms presided over by administrators who allowed someone to correct wrong answers.

AP writer Carolyn Thompson has written an article titled, "Should the SAT be optional? Bribery scandal renews debate."


David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said he expects more colleges will explore going test-optional.

“In the long term, the conversation — even without the bribery scandal of a couple of weeks ago — the conversation about access to higher education has been simmering for a long time, and is starting to take shape in a way that we really are examining every aspect of the admission process to understand fully how it either promotes or inhibits access,” Hawkins said.

The ringleader, admissions consultant Rick Singer, was among 50 people charged in the scheme that involved bribes paid to test administrators and college coaches. Perfectly legal, however, are $1,000-an-hour tutors and coaches hired to guide affluent students through the admissions maze, including rigorous test preparation.

In California, lawmakers disgusted with the fraud have proposed reforms to prevent a repeat, including a discussion of whether it’s time to phase out the tests at public colleges statewide.

David Coleman, the chief executive of the College Board, which administers the SAT, said he agrees that commercial prep classes have corrupted the test. But he said the solution is not to do away with the tests, which he sees as complementing a student’s high school grades and as a check on grade inflation, which also tends to benefit wealthy students.
“We’ve got to admit the truth, that wealth inequality has progressed to such a degree that it isn’t fair to look at test scores alone,” Coleman said, “That you must look at them in context of the adversity students face.”

Another article inspired by the admissions scandal ("Nationwide College Fraud Scandal Renews Debate Over Making The SAT An Optional Test”) also offers some interesting excerpts. One comment in the article raises the prospect that while the growth of the test optional movement is indisputable, the existence of so many colleges offering test optional admissions might not be known to less affluent students.


When it’s lunch break on Long Island’s North Shore, many students have one thing on their minds.

“I’ve been taking the practice SAT and ACT and it’s a combination of everything you’re learning in school,” high school sophomore Oliver Palone explained.

They’re focused on learning in school, not what parents are allegedly rigging on the side.

That bribery scandal however, is renewing the debate over using standardized test scores to judge kids applying to college. It’s an argument that started even before wealthy parents were accused of paying to fraudulently boost those scores – pushing their children in and others out.

Admissions counselors revealed that more schools are exploring change; asking for additional scrutiny to see whether tests promote or inhibit access to higher education.

“If we do go test-optional is that going to somehow level the playing field? I really don’t think so because – counter intuitively – there are more affluent families applying to test optional schools,” Andy Lockwood of Lockwood College Consulting said.

“How do you feel if it’s not a level playing field?” CBS2’s Jennifer McLogan asked junior Aiden Mandell.

“Obviously it’s unfair. I think that you need the tests, but if you cheat on it and buy your way through then it ruins the whole purpose,” Mandell said.
Experts say when parents pave the way and clear obstacles it proves to be a great disservice to their children’s futures.

“One of the dirty little secrets about this whole scandal is how easy it is for parents to get their kids accommodations to take the ACT or the SAT either untimed or with double time,” Lockwood added.

Those accusations claim wealthy parents are also getting doctors to sign off on extra time exemptions or hand their kids over to pricey tutors.

There has been a flurry of test optional announcements by colleges in recent months. This Inside Higher Ed article by Scott Jaschik offers a cohesive summary:


Bucknell University announced in February that it was ending the requirement that all applicants submit SAT or ACT scores. Its announcement -- coming just before the scandal in college admissions broke -- didn't receive much attention nationally. But it stands out nonetheless. Many colleges that have gone test optional do not recruit nationally or have competitive admissions, but Bucknell does.

In the weeks since, more colleges have gone test optional, and there are signs that the policy shift is on the upswing.

Spring and summer are typically when colleges announce that they are going test optional. They make the announcements as they are preparing application materials for the next admissions cycle and they want to make their new policies known to high school counselors and potential applicants. Winter typically isn't when colleges announce. In the winter of 2017-18, only one college announced it was going test optional. In the winter of 2018-19, Bucknell was one of eight colleges making such a shift.

The others are: Creighton, DePauw, Fairleigh Dickinson and Ferris State Universities; Evergreen State College; and the Universities of Denver and of Minnesota at Crookston.

Then spring started off with announcements from the University of San Francisco and Springfield College.

In calendar year 2019, the pace is now one such announcement every 10 days, more than twice the pace at comparable points in past years, said Robert Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest: National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a group that is perhaps the leading critic of standardized testing in college admissions.

Colleges frequently consult with FairTest in advance of announcing a shift. And the organization keeps a "watch list" of colleges that have consulted with it or that have publicly said that they are considering a shift. That list now has more than 30 colleges on it, and use of FairTest's database of test-optional colleges has jumped 25 percent, compared to this time period last year, since the admissions scandal broke. A systemwide faculty committee at the University of California system is currently studying whether the SAT or ACT should continue to be required there.

Actress Felicity Huffman, who was indicted in Operation Varsity Blues, will plead guilty in federal court along with 13 others, as The New York Times reports:


Felicity Huffman, the Hollywood actress, on Monday laid out a list of failings: Yes, she had paid a college counselor $15,000 to arrange for cheating on her daughter’s SAT test. And yes, it had backfired miserably, turning what Ms. Huffman said had been an effort to help her daughter into a betrayal of her.

“I am ashamed,” Ms. Huffman said, announcing that she will plead guilty to a federal crime, part of a sweeping investigation of college admissions fraud unveiled last month by prosecutors in Boston.

On Monday, prosecutors said that 14 people — 13 parents and one coach — would plead guilty in the case. Dates for the formal pleas in court had yet to be set.

Ms. Huffman said that her daughter had been unaware of the cheating — prosecutors say a proctor corrected her test answers after she had left. And Ms. Huffman acknowledged that, in an attempt to assist her daughter, she had ultimately hurt and betrayed her.

“This transgression toward her and the public I will carry for the rest of my life,” she said. “My desire to help my daughter is no excuse to break the law or engage in dishonesty.”

The man who was implicated in taking $10,000 payments for each SAT and ACT exam he fraudulently took in place of students has also pleaded guilty in federal court.


Mark Riddell, of Palmetto, Florida, pleaded guilty in Boston federal court Friday to mail fraud and money laundering conspiracy charges.

Investigators said between 2012 and February, the 36-year-old Harvard graduate secretly took entrance exams for students or corrected their answers after their test was turned in, according to documents filed in federal court in Boston. He was paid $10,000 per test.

In one instance detailed in the indictment, Riddell, who oversaw entrance exam preparations at IMG Academy, allegedly flew from Tampa to Houston to take the ACT exam for a student. The complaint claims Riddell was sent a sample of the student's handwriting so that he could mimic it.

[Note on the interview and article below: in January of 2019, then-College Board president and CEO David Coleman appointed David Singer as College Board president, with Coleman remaining as CEO. Singer had been COO of the College Board since 2013, and formerly worked for Kaplan Test Prep.]

The college admissions scandal that culminated in Operation Varsity Blues has reinforced concerns about the value and the security of standardized tests. In the wake of the scandal, College Board president Jeremy Singer was interviewed by Jeffrey Young of EdSurge. The audio for the interview is here.

EdSurge has posted excerpts in text form in its article, Is The SAT Secure? What the College Board Is Doing to Respond to the Admissions Scandal.


EdSurge: In the wake of this college admissions scandal, what do you do as an organization to help restore trust in this environment when people are looking anew at whether this system is secure?

Jeremy Singer: I think the Varsity Blues scandal [the codename of the federal investigation] hit a real nerve for most people about the inequity that we see in the system between families with more resources, and those who don’t. There’s a depressing stat that Raj Reddy [a Stanford social-mobility researcher] published that showed that people in the top 1 percent of income are 77 times more likely to get into these Ivy League plus schools [the eight Ivy League colleges, University of Chicago, Stanford, MIT, and Duke] than the bottom 20 percent.

We’ve had some success, but there are still, as Raj’s stat shows us, a lot of issues. The Varsity Blues incident was a very extreme example of it, and a very small one. A few students were able to switch the school where they tested. They got accommodations, and they didn’t take the exam at their [usual] school. They went to another school where the school didn’t know them and somehow they paid a proctor and they took advantage of that by taking the test for them or helping correct their answers. It happened in two cases.

EdSurge: Yes, but I think prosecutors suggested there may have been other incidents.

Jeremy Singer: It’s extremely rare. We take it very seriously. We’ve invested millions upon millions, and we continue to, on securing the test. The integrity of the test is critically important. If the higher education system doesn’t see it as a valid objective measure, they won’t use it, so it’s important that we protect it. We focus on a lot of things around test security. There are a whole series of initiatives.

For this specific example, we’re taking action. [In the cases in the scandal, the students who cheated falsely claimed they had a learning disability, which let them take the test at a different school than they usually attend, an accommodation which made it easier for them to cheat.] But typically, those students still take the exam in their home school where they’d be known. But some can’t, for whatever reason. And we’re just tightening those procedures. If it’s a valid case, we’ll allow it, but it won’t be easy. You’ll be in your known school where that would essentially eliminate that chance of this kind of impersonation piece.

Washington Post education contributor Jeffrey Selingo (former editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education) offers an audio interview with Joshua Goodman of Harvard University regarding Goodman's study into what sort of students re-take the SAT, and their education outcomes. Goodman's study, "Take Two! SAT Retaking and College Enrollment Gaps", offers the following abstract:

Data on millions of SAT-takers show only half retake the exam, with even lower retake rates among low income and underrepresented minority students. Scoring below multiples of 100 increases retaking, implying some students have round number target scores. ...evidence finds retaking once improves admissions-relevant SAT scores by 0.3 standard deviations on average. Likely by strengthening college applications, retaking substantially increases four-year college enrollment, particularly for low income and underrepresented minority students. Eliminating disparities in retake rates could close up to 20 percent of the income gap and 10 percent of the racial gap in four-year college enrollment.

Providing another example that nearly any human endeavor can be monetized, Bloomberg Businessweek has published an article examining the practice of college-bound students agreeing to hand over part of their future earnings in return for investment: College Grads Sell Stakes in Themselves to Wall Street


To pay for college, Amy Wroblewski sold a piece of her future. Every month, for eight-and-a-half years, she must turn over a set percentage of her salary to investors. Today, about a year after graduation, Wroblewski makes $50,000 a year as a higher education recruiter in Winchester, Va. So the cut comes to $279 a month, less than her car payment.

If the 23-year-old becomes a star in her field, she could pay twice as much. If she loses her job, she won’t have to pay anything, and investors will be out of luck until she finds work.

Wroblewski struck this unusual deal as an undergraduate at public Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. To fund part of the cost of her degree in strategy and organizational management, she sidestepped the common source of money, a student loan. Instead, she agreed to hand over part of her future earnings through a new kind of financial instrument called an income-sharing agreement, or ISA. In a sense, financiers are transforming student debtors into stock investments, with much of the same risk and, ideally, return.

Americans owe $1.5 trillion in higher education debt, a burden that weighs down their dreams and the U.S. economy. The Federal Reserve says millennials are now less likely to buy homes than young people were in 2005, and even senior citizens find themselves still making payments on their student loans. Wall Street sees the crisis as an opportunity. College graduates on average earn $1 million more over their lifetimes. Investors could capture some of that wage premium for themselves.

“I envision a whole new equity market for higher education in the next five years where today there’s only debt,” says Chuck Trafton, who runs hedge fund FlowPoint Capital Partners LP, which has invested in ISAs, including Purdue’s. ISA experts say they have fielded calls from some of the world's largest investment managers that are considering investing in the contracts. And Tony James, executive vice chairman of money manager Blackstone Group LP, formed the Education Finance Institute to help schools study and develop ISAs.

For now, the market for income-sharing agreements can be measured in the tens of millions, a tiny sum compared with the $170 billion in outstanding asset-backed securities created from student loans. Only some schools let outside investment firms buy a stake in students. Others seek out individual donors, mostly wealthy alumni, or use money from their own endowments.

The college admissions scandal has raised concerns that testing accommodations (such as allowing 50-100% additional testing time) for students with learning differences may be curtailed, but both the College Board and ACT suggest this will not be the case. The Varsity Blues-related cheating was of a dual nature in that students without actual learning differences not only received extra testing time, but were allowed to take tests solo at a location other than their own school, and in some cases proctors who received bribes allowed a third party to either take the SAT in place of the student, or changed answers after the test to improve the student's score. However, the issue of testing accommodations deserves attention in isolation, as the College Board has recently made policy changes that have led to an increase in the granting of testing accommodations.

Here are excerpts from the Education Week article linked above:


The College Board owes it to students and educators to clarify: Is timing essential to what the SAT measures? Or is timing merely for administrative convenience? That is, is extended time an accommodation or a modification?

...the College Board was pressured to create a more streamlined and lenient system [in 2016] by the U.S. Department of Justice, which responded to complaints about a laborious, document-laden approval process, especially with the SATs used in state-testing programs. In essence, the College Board has now agreed to delegate testing decisions to school districts’ IEP [individualized education programs for students with disabilities] teams—with a quick approval process and few questions asked. That raises new validity issues that have been largely ignored.

The College Board’s allowance of accommodations (or are they modifications?) has grown in recent years. The board received (and approved 85 percent of) around 80,000 accommodation requests in 2010-11 and 160,000 requests in 2015-16, according to The Record. Where will it end, especially with planned accommodations for English-language learners? Will we reach a tipping point when we must acknowledge that the SAT is no longer standardized?