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.
Perhaps no tests have higher stakes than the SAT and the ACT. For decades the scores were a key data point on the application for virtually any selective college, and they remain an obsession for parents and high school seniors, even as hundreds of colleges and universities have made them optional over concerns that they favor the white and wealthy. In the high school class of 2018, each of the two exams was taken by roughly two million students.
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.”
In recent years the college entrance exams have weathered scandals in places ranging from an upmarket New York City suburb to China.
About 20 teenagers in Great Neck, Long Island, which is known for its high-performing public schools, were implicated in a 2011 scheme that involved some students paying up to $ 3,600 for their classmates to take the SAT or ACT for them. Two students involved in the scandal declined to be interviewed and pleaded not to have their names resurfaced, saying they did not want the event to continue to define their lives.
At the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, the N.C.A.A. found that an assistant football coach had sent recruits to testing sites where their scores were altered. Just a few years later, 15 Chinese nationals were charged with giving impersonators fake passports and as much as $ 6,000 to sit for the test. There are regular reports that SAT questions have been leaked.
But Operation Varsity Blues, the racketeering investigation that led to charges against 50 people, is one of the most audacious schemes yet: Prosecutors say proctors were bribed to fake scores, test takers were hired to impersonate students and at least one family was encouraged to falsely claim their son had a disability.
The SAT and ACT are not aptitude or IQ tests. They are intended to assess how well students have mastered standard high school reading and math concepts.
Though tutoring companies often brag about how much they can boost scores, there is no clear consensus on how much test preparation actually changes the final result, or whether test prep warps the results or merely demonstrates a student’s diligence.
Dennis Yim, the director of academics at Kaplan, one of the country’s largest test prep companies, said prep wasn’t to blame for an unequal system. “Studying for these tests isn’t about doing something that is circumventing the test, it’s about learning the content,” he said.
Kaplan now livestreams some prep sessions for free, and some school districts provide free prep courses. In 2017, the College Board, which administers the SAT, and Khan Academy, an education app, announced that students who used a free service saw gains on their scores.
But 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.
The College Board, which administers the SAT, and ACT Inc. declined to provide statistics about how many students qualified for extra time in recent years. But data from 2017 shows that requests for special accommodations, including extra time, quiet rooms and breaks, doubled between 2010 and 2016. About 85 percent of requests were granted. In 2017, the College Board made it easier for students to be approved for accommodations, after complaints about the high cost and burden of having a child assessed.
Zachary Goldberg, a spokesman for the College Board, said most students who receive extra time already receive special education services at their schools.
“We are not aware of any prior incident where someone has attempted to take advantage of our accommodations policy to evade our test security systems,” he said, noting that the College Board sometimes asks for more documentation to demonstrate that a student needs extra time.
But college 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.
The revelations could further stigmatize those students who legitimately need accommodations, said Alexis Redding, a visiting scholar at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
“A story like this adds insult to injury,” she said. “It casts a shadow on those who truly need it.”
The Scholastic Aptitude Test, originally considered an intelligence test, dates back to the 1920s. Early on it was used by people like James B. Conant, the president of Harvard from 1933 to 1953, to find promising students beyond the East Coast prep schools that traditionally sent graduates to the Ivy League, said Nicholas Lemann, author of the “The Big Test,” a history of the SAT, and a professor of journalism at Columbia University.
Mr. Conant’s goal was to decrease the influence of inherited wealth and make sure the most talented future scientists and civil servants would make it to college. Many experts still defend the use of a standardized measure to gauge students, and say that the SAT and the ACT are high quality examples and do a good job of predicting academic success in college.
“People right now are thinking, ‘Oh gosh, the SAT is gameable, let’s get rid of it,’” said Jonathan Wai, a professor of education and psychology at the University of Arkansas. “But it turns out the test is highly reliable, and to remove the one objective piece of an admissions package could have unintended consequences.”
The College Board and ACT Inc. each released statements this week defending their exams as fair measures for the vast majority of students who do not cheat.
The push to lower the stakes around scores has accelerated in recent years. Currently, about 1,000 colleges and universities across the country do not require students to submit their SAT or ACT scores, according to FairTest.
The test-optional movement gained steam last summer, when the prestigious University of Chicago dropped its test requirement in order to “enhance the accessibility of its undergraduate College for first-generation and low-income students,” the university said.
Still, research has shown that SAT scores combined with high school grade point averages can help predict how students perform in college. While high school grades are among the best indicators of success in college, there is enormous variation in high schools’ grading structures. One recent study found that grade inflation is most rampant in high-income high schools.
Daniel Koretz, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education who studies testing, said, “In principle, having a standardized measure is really important.” But, he added, “The problem we’re facing now is that the measure has become so important that people are trying to undermine its value” through coaching and, in this case, cheating.