The details of the admissions-fraud scheme revealed by federal prosecutors last month sound like something out of a heist movie. A private admissions counselor allegedly bribed a proctor of an SAT test, and in some cases paid someone to take the test for a student, or have someone change answers to improve a student’s score.
The incident has raised questions about the fairness and validity of the admissions process as a whole, and specifically about whether the SAT is as secure as it should be.
EdSurge sat down this week with Jeremy Singer, the president of the College Board, which makes and administers the test, to ask how the organization is responding, and about his thoughts on the broader issues around college admissions.
Listen to the discussion on this week’s EdSurge On Air podcast. You can follow the podcast on the Apple Podcast app, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music or wherever you listen. Or read a portion of the interview below, lightly edited for clarity.
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 Chetty [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.
And that’s because there are a lot of things in the system that advantage people with money, frankly. So this story hit that nerve. College Board was founded to try to address that inequity. It was these East Coast schools, Ivy League schools, that said: Hey, we don’t have the resources in the early 1900s to find students from Milwaukee, from Montana, Idaho. And so we need a vehicle to assess their readiness. And that was how College Board and SAT was started over 100 years ago.
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.
Yes, but I think prosecutors suggested there may have been other incidents.
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 accomodation 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.
There has been discussion online by some parents concerned that the College Board might roll back these accommodations for students with disabilities now that someone’s gamed the system.
When I came to College Board six years ago, we talked to a lot of groups representing students with learning disabilities. Frankly, they were frustrated because the process to get accommodations was really burdensome. In our New York office, we have a quarter of a floor with clinical psychologists reviewing cases to make sure they are valid, so we take it very seriously.
But we did take steps to keep the validity of the process, but make it easier on those students, so that it wouldn’t be as hard to get for those who deserves accommodations. We don’t plan to roll that back. That’s an important community that we need to continue to serve. We’re not planning to change the accommodation rules; we’re planning to change this one very specific case that we think will address the issue.
There’s probably a moment before any of us in the general public knew about it, when you found out about the Varsity Blues scandal. Can you describe that moment and what your reaction was to having someone say this happened?
First of all, it was unfortunate. My last name is Singer, and the guy who organized, his name is Singer. That was unfortunate.
But I take it there is no relation between you and Rick Singer, the alleged mastermind of this admissions-fraud scheme.
No relation. I got a lot of texts and emails as soon as it broke. For me as a parent, I related to it. I have 17-year-old twins who are going through the college process right now. They’re high-school seniors. And they’re lucky in many ways because my wife and I and our parents all went to college. Obviously with my job, I have a lot of knowledge about the college-going process. And even then I still found it complex.
But as we’ve raised them, we wanted them to recognize the advantages that they were born into that most other kids don’t have.
So Varsity Blues to me is the polar opposite of that. These are parents trying to give their students all these advantages that are beyond the norm. And then, hide it from them. Instead of saying, ‘Hey, you’ve done great, but you’ve also got a lot of advantages.’ They’re trying to manage the outcomes and then hide the fact of all the advantages, so then you get kids who feel they’ve accomplished what they’ve done by themselves or by their effort, which is just not true. It hit me personally very hard on that, seeing that, really, is the polar opposite of how I’ve tried to raise my kids to be citizens and human beings.
So how did you find out? You didn’t first read it in the paper?
No, no. The College Board was cooperating with the FBI and the investigation. We’ve known something was going on; we didn’t know the details. But, obviously, we are always happy to work [with law enforcement] when there’s anything shady happening. We want to root that stuff out.
Were you surprised that that kind of breach could happen in the system?
It’s rare. This is not a pervasive thing. Before I was at College Board, about eight, 10 years ago, there was a 60 Minutes story about a student who was impersonating other students and was taking the tests for them. And it was a few instances, but it got a lot of news attention because it’s a good story. But does that happen a lot? No, it happens very infrequently.
Our response then to protect against this was that a student has to create an admissions ticket when they register for the exam. And that ticket includes a photo of their whole face. There are rules: It can’t cut off the forehead, it can’t cut off the chin. And then they have to bring that admissions ticket with the photo and a valid ID, which is very specific to what we allow, to the school the day of the test.
That was eight or 10 years ago. And that has really [cut back on] impersonation. It’s a very rare instance that they took the test not at the home school in these [Varsity Blues] instances, but they transferred the kid to a different school. So if we can just tighten that process, we’re very confident that this sort of edge case will be eliminated.
The other thing that the Varsity Blues case really highlighted is that there’s so much stress around the admissions process that many parents go through perfectly legal means that still raise fairness issues, like hiring high-priced consultants or test coaches.
When David Coleman and I started at The College Board a little over six years ago, one of the first priorities was: How do we increase access and equity for all students and give all students this pathway to college? I had seen when I was in the paid test-prep [world], that people who could afford test prep had an advantage. They practiced and they built their skills. [So] we partnered with Khan Academy and launched Official SAT Practice. It’s free.
We’ve had eight million students use it since we launched it a few years ago. We had 100,000 students in the last year who improved their score by 200 points or more, and 400,000 students who improved their score by 100 points or more.
When we started, we were worried that we were going to this free, great tool, but it will be used by those families with greater resources because they’ll have knowledge about it. So we did a lot to build awareness through school counselors, through a lot of different communities. And the great news is we’re seeing it used pretty much proportionately by income, by race, and by first-generation students.
[Listen to the audio version for more, including Singer’s answer to whether the SAT is part of the problem of hypercompetitiveness in college admissions]