The organizations that run the nation’s two major college entrance exams brag about a robust and ever-expanding security system meant to block would-be cheaters: Tightly controlled testing rooms with photos required to get in, strict scripts for test administrators, seating charts and more.
But there’s one big hole: The entire system is dependent on the people involved — the test site supervisors and proctors, usually school employees looking to make some extra cash — doing the right thing.
And the College Board and ACT have virtually no oversight of many of those individuals.
“Everything in this process is based on belief, acceptance that the people in the process will be honest,” said Akil Bello, a longtime test prep coach who has taken the SAT dozens of times and knows the process well.
The massive college admissions cheating scandal unveiled by the FBI earlier this year shows just how flimsy that approach can be, as the ringleader of the scheme paid off proctors to help dozens of students cheat on both the SAT and ACT — a method that he bragged to parents was the “home run of homeruns.”
Now, admissions experts say, the companies need to do more than tout their strict rules and pay closer attention to the people they pick to enforce them. A POLITICO review found that the companies largely leave it up to school officials to pick the thousands of proctors who administer the tests. They appear to exercise little oversight of the people they hire in part to prevent cheating.
“You can essentially bring anybody in there as a proctor,” said Alicia Oglesby, a counselor at a Maryland high school who has overseen SAT testing there for the last four years.
Oglesby said everyone she hires is a current or former teacher at the school. But she said the College Board doesn’t check that, and leaves it up to supervisors like her to staff up the test sites.
“It wouldn’t be super difficult to bring someone in who was like a professional test taker and say, ‘This is my proctor and this is going to proctor this student on this day’ — and it would be totally legitimate and follow the process as everyone else, but they would change the answers,” Oglesby said.
“I don’t think it would be too difficult to cheat,” she said. “I think the cheating would only be as monitored as the proctor wanted it to be.”
The College Board and ACT say they insist that they are careful in choosing the officials who oversee the test sites, even if they can’t review every proctor. Each overseer – called a supervisor by the College Board and coordinator by the ACT — may oversee from several to several dozen proctors.
“Our ACT test manual instructs coordinators that test center staff must be people of integrity,” ACT spokesman Ed Colby said.
College Board spokesman Zachary Goldberg said: “The overwhelming majority take the role very seriously and work hard to ensure a smooth and secure testing environment for all students. In the rare instances when they don’t, we take appropriate action on behalf of students. Further, when schools don’t comply with our policies and procedures, we reserve the right to prohibit them from administering future tests.”
“We have bolstered our security efforts by adding to our test security team, and their expertise has led to innovations in preventing cheating,” Goldberg said. “That includes producing more test content, collecting cell phones, conducting data-driven analyses of test taker behaviors, and enhancing security measures at test centers.”
But people familiar with the process for picking test administrators, including test site supervisors and proctors and test prep coaches who regularly take the exams, told POLITICO the College Board and ACT are anything but rigorous, and rarely police the sites that are established.
“They have to trust in an honor system,” one former test site supervisor in the New York City area told POLITICO. “When you’re talking about a test that colleges factor into their admissions decision — that they’re relying on an honor code to make this whole process happen, it’s just really crazy to me.”
The former supervisor said the College Board warns it may send undercover test takers to test sites to check on them. While it was enough to put the supervisor on edge, he said that in the two years he oversaw the New York City-area test center, it never happened. And he said he’s never heard of it happening to any of the other supervisors he knows.
The massive cheating scandal uncovered this year is a prime example of how the system can be exploited, those with experience with the tests say.
William “Rick” Singer, the ringleader of the scheme, paid off test administrators at a public high school in Houston, Texas, and a private college preparatory school in West Hollywood, California, authorities say.
Singer bragged to his wealthy clients that he “controlled” the testing centers. He told one client that he calmed the administrator at the Houston school, who was nervous about getting caught by assuring her, “I have been doing this forever.”
“It’s the homerun of homeruns,” Singer told another client. It works “every time.”
The administrators Singer paid off — at the rate of thousands of dollars per test — would let Mark Riddell, a Florida-based test-taking whiz in cahoots with Singer, slip into the testing rooms to take tests in place of the students or pretend to proctor the exams and change their answers.
Federal authorities say Singer pulled off the scheme for at least eight years before he was caught. Singer has bragged about helping “nearly 800” families get into college through his scheme, which also included bribing college coaches to help students get admitted as athletics recruits.
“This thing Rick Singer did with bribing the proctors was stunningly crafty,” said Ned Johnson, a Washington, D.C.-area test prep coach who has taken the test regularly since 1993. “You can go fishing in the same pond over and over and over and over. In some ways there’s only one vulnerability.”
The College Board and ACT both said they assisted authorities investigating the case to, as ACT put it, “identify and expose the few bad actors who have attempted to undermine a fair testing environment.”
“ACT contracts with thousands of people to locally administer the ACT around the country,” the company said in a statement after the scandal. “These individuals certify to follow ACT’s policies and procedures to administer the ACT test. In these cases, the two charged individuals allegedly did not follow ACT’s rules.”
The College Board and ACT pick test sites — usually schools — and select test supervisors to oversee them. They’re usually a principal or college counselor. Those supervisors are then tasked with staffing up the test site, picking the proctors that will administer the tests. They’re typically affiliated with the school in some way, but not always.
To offer the SAT, schools fill out an online application that asks location and enrollment information, whether the school has ever been a test site for the SAT before or if it administers other types of standardized tests, like the PSAT or Advanced Placement tests, and how many students it could accommodate on test days. New test centers are approved “if there is capacity need in the area and if they meet specific requirements,” Goldberg said.
Since the cheating scandal, the College Board has also tightened its control of the schools students have the option to test at, as students in the scheme would travel, sometimes across the country, to take the SAT at the testing sites Singer “controlled.”
“In all but the rarest circumstances, students will take the test only at their schools or during a weekend session, which makes the kind of cheating exposed in the Varsity Blues case extraordinarily difficult,” Goldberg said.
The ACT’s process is similar. The ACT sometimes recruits schools if there’s demand in a particular area, otherwise schools ask to be considered.
“The test center establishment process involves several steps, including verifying the need in the area for additional seats and considering historical information on the site (e.g., if it was previously an ACT test center),” Colby said.
Both ACT and College Board have staff at test sites sign agreements saying they’ll follow the rules — though neither would share the actual rules they give them.
A copy of the 2017 manual given to test supervisors, obtained by POLITICO from a former supervisor, tells them to recruit proctors and assistants who can handle groups of students “effectively and in a friendly manner.” They must be high school graduates, at least 18 years old, speak English fluently “and possess the same level of integrity and maturity expected of a member of the school staff,” it says.
It says proctors, who staff the testing rooms themselves and roam the halls on the lookout for would-be cheaters, should be “a current or retired professional; administrative, secretarial, or clerical staff; or graduate student.” They must “follow oral and written instructions precisely” and be able to “detect nuances of improper conduct or misuse of test materials.”
“Emphasize to your staff that they are responsible for preventing fraud,” it says. “Remain alert and vigilant at all times during testing. Staff must not engage in activities that are not related to testing (such as talking or texting on phones, using a computer, or grading papers).”
It also warns against hiring as proctors people who provide private SAT test preparation. POLITICO talked to at least one such individual, however, who has worked as a proctor and was never flagged or questioned by the College Board.
The 60-page manual includes a slew of highly detailed security measures the administrators are supposed to follow. It’s meant to be a strict security net aimed at stopping any would-be cheaters.
Test site staff must check student IDs and be “watchful for students concealing test materials under their admission tickets during breaks or using their tickets to take information in or out of the testing room.” They have to set specific seating charts — with students at least four feet apart — and track the exact test, by serial number, that was taken at each of the seats. They have to count the tests several times.
The manual includes a list of prohibited items, ranging including smartphones, audio players, wearable technology, timers and cameras to seemingly safe items like pens and scratch paper. Proctors have to be on the lookout for everything. The manual notes mechanical pencils and separate erasers, for instance, can be used to conceal information. Smartphones can be disguised as calculators with the use of a plastic covering.
They’re told to report any other “irregularities” — from disruptions in the test room to questions and concerns students have about the test — with as much detail as possible, so the College Board can try and catch cheating on the back end.
“The rules are very clear and, in defense of College Board and ACT, this is designed so everyone has the same experience and so it’s fair,” said Johnson, the D.C.-area test prep coach.
Despite the tight security measures, accusations of cheating are “constant,” said Anthony Carnevale, former Vice President for Public Leadership at the Educational Testing Service, the company that College Board pays to develop and administer the SAT.
“It is a persistent problem,” said Carnevale, who now is director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
“The question then is, what happens after that,” Carnevale said. The organizations will let students accused of cheating know what they suspect, and offer them a chance to provide evidence to prove they didn’t cheat, or offer to let them retake it. They’ll eventually cancel their score if they believe the student cheated.
But it’s increasingly difficult to spot cheating based simply on statistical irregularities – such as a dramatic improvement from one test to the next. The College Board and ETS and ACT have “come to the point where they admit that if you use test prep, you can raise your score from 100 to 200 points,” Carnevale said, “contrary to the widely held assertion in the testing industry that you can’t change your score.”
“It’s pretty clear somebody can change their test score from 100 to 200 points, so does it have to be 300 points before you flag somebody?” he said.
Plus, wealthy parents are willing to bring in lawyers to fight accusations of cheating. Parents also bring in doctors to attest to students’ learning disabilities, thereby allowing them extra time on the exams.
“If you’re armed with a doctor and a lawyer, you can get away with a lot,” Carnevale said. “The cost of policing the system would be very high.”
While cheating on the scale of the admissions scandal is rare — most agreed it was pretty much unheard of to this point — the lack of oversight of the officials running the tests manifests in other, more common ways.
David Benjamin Gruenbaum, a longtime test prep coach, said he has heard from students whose proctors didn’t show up on test day, who got confused and offered too much or too little time on the tests. One, Gruenbaum said, brought a barking dog.
He believes the companies should hire their own staff to administer the test, rather than outsourcing to schools.
“There’s just been a litany of problems with security,” Gruenbaum said. “So, why wouldn’t you want to hire professionals to administer the tests properly?”
Bob Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a group that has long criticized the SAT, ACT and other standardized tests, put it this way: “It’s overworked teachers who have to come in very early on a Saturday morning when in many cases they’d prefer to be sleeping, who are paid poorly.”
Schaeffer said his group often hears reports of proctors who “spend large amounts of time looking at their smartphones, reading papers or otherwise not attending to the details of their jobs.”
“A very wary proctor in a room with 20 or 25 test takers… can’t have their eyes everywhere at the same time,” he said. “But they are supposed to.”