There’s A Deeper Systemic Problem in the College Admissions Scandal No One Is Talking About

Surely you have heard of the “Varsity Blues” scandal, in which the rich and famous purchased “side door” entries to elite colleges for their children with mediocre academic and athletic skills.

There were at least two ways they cheated: at two compromised testing centers in Los Angeles and Houston students were given preferential test administrations—alone with a proctor and extra time; and athletic coaches at elite schools were bribed to steer reserved admission slots for their sport to paying non-athletes.

The tactics were so brazen, the persons involved — both payers and payees — so publicly visible, and the dollar amounts so large, one may wonder how the perpetrators thought they could get away with it. I wonder why the investigation required the intervention of an “outside” enforcement agency, the U.S. Department of Justice.

Apparently, the tipster was the father of a Yale University student. We know the result of him choosing to report his suspicions to the federal Justice Department. We will never know what might have happened if he had chosen, instead, to report his suspicions directly to the College Board, the producer of the SAT.

Indeed, it seems odd that College Board security personnel had not noticed statistical aberrations at the implicated Houston and Los Angeles testing centers. (Or, perhaps they had, and we just don’t know about it because they chose to ignore them.)

Normally, standardized testing takes place within an enforcement structure internal to the “industry”— the professional community of test developers and test administrators. The standard practice is not unlike that at schools or universities, which prefer to adjudicate sexual assault disputes on campus rather than deferring to civil authorities, despite the fact that sexual assault is a crime.

Cheating on college admission tests is a crime, too. With most cheating cases handled internally within the testing industry, though, we rarely hear about them. They may be settled outside the courts. They may not be pursued at all.

A major cheating scandal surfaces publicly only once every several years, which seems to verify testing industry claims that cheating is infrequent. Considering only the United States in the past decade, the public witnessed two high-profile cheating scandals in the public schools of Atlanta and Washington, DC, and a smattering of smaller scandals elsewhere (e.g., El Paso and Pennsylvania).

It is notable that those cases were not exposed by the testing industry’s internal enforcement. The companies scoring the tests must surely have noticed the brazen test answer sheet erasures by Atlanta and Washington, DC educators. But, unlike in most other countries, most US test developers are private companies, selling a proprietary product to customers to use as they choose. From the testing company’s point of view, test administration is not their responsibility, and they face strong commercial disincentives to accuse their paying customers of fraud.

In both Atlanta and DC an independent consultant, Caveon Test Security, was hired to conduct investigations. Both investigations were limited in scope to just what the school districts would allow. Nonetheless, Caveon’s president declared publicly to have found “no widespread” cheating, exonerating the school systems in the minds of most.

In Atlanta, the answer sheet erasure parties continued for ten years before an outside authority, the Georgia state attorney general, intervened. Criminal convictions ensued.

No criminal convictions resulted in Washington, DC so, it would seem, their alleged scandal was either nonexistent or successfully covered up. Cheating suspects were promoted; the primary whistleblower was demoted. But, even the public coverage of the issue, and the remaining stigma, may have occurred only because the DC Public Schools (DCPS) during the administration of Chancellor Michelle Rhee operated in the unusually bright glare of public media scrutiny.

For a brief period in the year after the alleged scandal, I worked as the testing coordinator at DCPS. I recommended several changes to test administration procedures, such as moving teachers to rooms different from their own classrooms during test administrations, making the person responsible for the storage, delivery, and collection of test materials at each school someone not from that school, and so on. All my suggestions were rejected without, to my observation, any meaningful consideration.

Also rejected were all the suggestions for increased test security made by the consultant, Caveon. In the end, the only use made of their visit was the claim repeatedly expressed by DC Public School leaders that Caveon had reported “no widespread” security problems.

While working at DCPS, I also requested of the test developer our students’ answer sheets, or photocopies thereof, or data files of test answers categorized by school and classroom, so that we could do our own analysis. I was refused, point blank. Such is just not done. There is a black box, a black box only accessible to an independent contractor in a faraway city.

We have a system where the test administrator cannot check on what the test developer has, and the test developer will not question what the test administrator does.

Plenty is said about test security. School personnel may participate in training workshops. Test developers publish (often complicated and long) test administrator booklets with step-by-step instructions for maintaining security. Nonetheless, cheating investigations remain uncommon. Pinning responsibility for such investigations remains difficult.

This seems to be by design.

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