AUSTIN (KXAN / AP) — A college entrance exam policy aimed at helping students with disabilities was exploited to enable cheating in what is being described as the biggest school admissions scandal ever prosecuted by federal authorities.
The exam process, already stressful for kids and their families, could become worse with added security and scrutiny after the ‘Varsity Blues’ scandal broke out.
A federal affidavit made public Tuesday details allegations of test administrators being bribed “to allow a third party to facilitate cheating” on the ACT and SAT exams. The document says that in some cases, that involved providing answers, correcting answers after the fact or having someone else pose as the student to take the test.
The College Board, which runs the SAT, and ACT Inc. provide accommodations for students with medically documented disabilities that can include giving students extra time to complete the test or allowing them to take it alone under the supervision of a proctor.
Both organizations are now defending the integrity of their testing process.
The College Board said it has seen an increase in disabilities accommodations request in recent years as more students have opted to take its exams
“The College Board has a comprehensive, robust approach to combat cheating, and we work closely with law enforcement as part of those efforts. We will always take all necessary steps to ensure a level playing field for the overwhelming majority of test takers who are honest and play by the rules,” the nonprofit said in a statement.
Policies for security during the SAT and ACT are listed online and officials claim the policies are designed to give students a fair opportunity and to prevent anyone from gaining an advantage on the exam.
The typical testing experience has students taking the fee-based exam at their high school or a nearby school test site in their community. It’s most often done in a group setting, a timed environment and monitored by familiar school staff, such as teachers and counselors contracted by ACT and SAT officials, experts said.
Students arrive on the date with photo identification, which is matched to their preregistration information and the photo they send to the ACT and SAT administrators validating who they are. Testing officials also make sure all testing materials are secure before, during and after the test.
Alex Duran, a college and career counselor for Travis Early College High School in South Austin said this can be a stressful time for students because of how much it impacts their future.
“Overall it is a challenging task for students to overcome, not only because of the content of the exam, but I think a lot of students also worry about the implications of what their scores will be like, what options they may or may not have based on those scores,” Duran said. “I think a lot of times they are thinking about stuff that’s really not related to the exam when they are taking the test.”
In the past, it was extremely rare for a disability request to be denied, according to Jayne Fonash, a recently retired high school counselor in Virginia and the president-elect of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
The scandal could lead to more scrutiny for students applying for more time.
Students with disabilities who receive school accommodations and are served by the federal Individualized Education Program can apply directly to the ACT and SAT for similar accommodations, which may include testing documents in Braille for blindness, a text reader for dyslexia, snack breaks for diabetes, and extended time or one-on-one testing for attention deficit disorders.
The College Board said it has dedicated staff to consider such requests and may request documentation to vet it.
Rachel Rubin, the co-founder of Spark Admissions near Boston, said it’s common for families to get psychiatric evaluations for their children so that they can get extra time for the SAT or ACT or take it over multiple days or in a quiet room. She said such exams usually aren’t covered by insurance and can cost thousands of dollars, yet another way the wealthy can get a leg up over the less fortunate.