News

$75K for a fake ACT score? Students say cheating happens without the big bucks

Despite scandal, SAT and ACT nonprofits won't disclose if they're tightening test-taking measures

"I can make scores happen, and nobody on the planet can get scores to happen."

William "Rick" Singer boasted this to Gordon Caplan last summer as they discussed how Singer would arrange for Caplan's daughter to get high scores on the ACT and SAT — namely, by having a proctor answer the questions for her.

Caplan allegedly paid $75,000 for this service.

Last week's federal indictment of 50 people in a nationwide college-admissions bribery scheme pulled the curtain back on a well-oiled test-cheating machine that involved paid-off proctors, falsified learning disabilities and one individual who could "nail" parents' desired score for their child. Two SAT and ACT administrators were among the indicted.

Both the ACT and the College Board, which administers the SAT, refused to say this week whether the case has prompted any additional scrutiny of their test-taking procedures, including accommodations for disability. They characterized review of their policies as "ongoing" and "regular."

"We're doing more today than ever to ensure the test scores we report to colleges are accurate and valid," the College Board said in a statement in response to the federal criminal case.

Several of the colleges and universities whose staff were indicted, by contrast, quickly launched internal investigations into their admissions and gifts policies and even of the current students who were implicated in the indictment.

Some high school students who agonize over preparing for these standardized exams, knowing that their scores will decide their access to certain tiers of colleges and universities, say the allegations in this case are a reminder that the testing system is unfair and gameable.

"The entire scandal takes away opportunities from kids that have worked really hard to get where they want to be," said Diego Diaz, a freshman at Palo Alto High School.

"I feel like it's just not a fair process anymore, and there need to be precautions to make sure that doesn't happen again," he said.

Other students feel, however, that the testing organizations have done what they can to ensure fairness for all students — and that with a national network of proctors and millions of students taking the exam throughout the year, those who want to cheat the system will likely find a way.

Hannah Suh, a junior at Gunn High School, said she wasn't surprised by the test-cheating allegations. Cheating on the SAT and ACT is common, she said, and is often enabled by the variance in proctors' adherence to required test-taking procedures.

In her experience, proctors range from strict — monitoring students closely by walking throughout the room during the full administration of the hours-long test — to lenient and even "unprofessional." When she took the ACT last semester, a proctor used a timer on a microwave to time the exam, accidentally turning on the actual microwave a few times.

Some proctors read a book at the front of the room, she said, making it easier for students to cheat.

"Both the College Board and the ACT seem to have loose regulations, and many students are under the impression that if you have the money and the connections it is very possible to cheat on the tests," Suh said.

Suh said the nonprofit ACT and College Board can do more to improve their training for proctors and more strictly regulate "what a proctor should and should not do during a test."

ACT said it contracts with people around the country to administer the exam locally while the College Board relies on schools to select administrators and proctors. Neither organization immediately responded to questions about their training requirements for proctors.

Senior Arjun Prabhakar, Gunn's school board representative, said identification procedures, such as making sure a student's ID matches his or her testing ticket, should be more uniformly enforced. Students he spoke with have also voiced "frustration about the lack of willingness for testing companies to admit flaws in their systems."

Other students, however, said they haven't personally observed any cheating during the exams and think the testing environments are secure.

Cheating can take place outside of the testing room, too, with students posting answers on discussion website Reddit, said Caroline Furrier, a senior and Palo Alto High School's school board representative.

Students also don't have an "equal playing field going in" to the tests, Furrier said.

"Some students can pay large sums of money for special tutoring programs that can guarantee a certain score. Essentially buying a great test score is very common but is not looked down upon in the same way as the bribing that occurred recently," she said.

Ben Gordon, a junior at Paly, defended the national testing organizations and said they should be given more time to consider whether any policy changes are necessary.

"I think the actions of the few can't represent the hard work that all these proctors have gone through as well as the College Board in ensuring security in standardized testing," he said. "I feel safe and comfortable that I (was) given a fair shot in the two SAT exams I've taken."

The College Board said it has "significantly increased our test security efforts and resources in recent years," including producing more test content, banning and collecting cellphones, using lock boxes and "conducting data-driven analyses of test taker behaviors."

ACT declined to provide information about specific testing procedures, citing security.

Several parents indicted in the admissions scheme took advantage of testing accommodations to secure their children extra time and the ability to take the exams separate from the typical group administration. Families of students with disabilities and their advocates say they worry this could cause unfair blowback for the students for whom special accommodations are crucial.

The College Board said it was not aware of anyone taking advantage of its accommodations policy prior to this case.

On Tuesday, March 26, Palo Alto youth mental health nonprofit Children's Health Council is hosting a community town hall to discuss the admissions case, which "amplifies the culture of stress around admissions and reinforces the stigma attached to learning differences and accommodations, leaving parents concerned that their kids' evaluations won't be taken seriously any more," CHC said.

A panel and Q&A will feature CHC Chief Clinical Officer Ramsey Khasho; CHC Head of Adolescent Mental Health Services Vidya Krishnan; Denise Pope, founder of Stanford University school-reform group Challenge Success; Gunn High School senior Meghna Singh; and Elaine Barry,

director of Sophie's Scholars at Sacred Heart Schools in Menlo Park. For more information and to RSVP, go to eventbrite.com.

Related content:

• Listen to the March 15 episode of "Behind the Headlines," where Palo Alto college adviser John Raftrey discusses the implications of the nationwide admissions bribery scandal, now available on our YouTube channel and podcast.

Feds: Parents paid tens of thousands to game the admissions system

William 'Rick' Singer, head of college-admissions scam, had many Palo Alto connections

Pressure over college admissions 'out of control'

Stanford students file class action lawsuit in admissions scandal

Ex-global equity firm exec, a grad of Gunn High, implicated in admissions scam

Opinion: Making the college-admissions system more equitable

Opinion: Lessons parents should learn from the college-admissions scandal

Editorial: The audacity of privilege

In response to college-admissions scandal, Stanford to probe policies, current athletic recruits

Palo Alto couple faces money-laundering charge in college-admissions scam

Following college-admissions indictments, feds investigate whether Stanford was lax in complying with financial-aid laws

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Follow the Palo Alto Weekly/Palo Alto Online on Twitter @PaloAltoWeekly and Facebook for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

Editorial Assistant Cierra Bailey contributed reporting to this story.

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Comments

28 people like this
Posted by A Different Perspective
a resident of Woodside
on Mar 22, 2019 at 8:52 am

Sometimes it is done for convenience. My cousin and I look very similar & are of similar intelligence + scholastic aptitude.

We took turns on the SAT & ACT. I went skiing one weekend & he took my ACT test for me. In return, I took his SAT when he had to have some dental work done one Saturday morning. Our scores paralleled & we each took the other test on our own.

So basically we still took both tests & their was no variance or inconsistency in the results.

No big deal as our parents weren't bribing anyone to get into college...we were just covering for one another.


14 people like this
Posted by Redmond Turk
a resident of Gunn High School
on Mar 22, 2019 at 11:11 am

Redmond Turk is a registered user.

@A Different Perspective

>> So basically we still took both tests & their was no variance or inconsistency in the results.

This sentence gives us some insight into your likely scores. Apparently, not much to worry about here in terms of undue advantage.


10 people like this
Posted by Teacher
a resident of another community
on Mar 22, 2019 at 11:37 am

I’m originally from Palo Alto but now teach at another high performer high school. Cheating on the ACT is well known. Students know where and how to cheat. Until ACT gets some quality control it will continue.


4 people like this
Posted by bill of goods
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 22, 2019 at 11:41 am

How can a test prep program "guarantee" a score short of having someone take the test for the student?

A sales pitch is not a guarantee.


15 people like this
Posted by robert t
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 22, 2019 at 11:47 am

make prison happen


11 people like this
Posted by Big Deal
a resident of Gunn High School
on Mar 22, 2019 at 12:46 pm

> >> So basically we still took both tests & their was no variance or inconsistency in the results.

>> This sentence gives us some insight into your likely scores. Apparently, not much to worry about here in terms of undue advantage.

'There' instead of 'their'...no big deal. If this homonym came up at all, it was probably just one question.

Let's not get overly pedantic.

I'd rather go skiing than be taking a perfunctory test myself.


23 people like this
Posted by Nayeli
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 22, 2019 at 12:51 pm

Nayeli is a registered user.

It is still cheating -- even if it is done for convenience. While some may not intend to incur any sort of inherent advantage to it, others do it for precisely that reason. In college, I read a report about people taking GED tests for someone else that resembled them.


15 people like this
Posted by Big Deal
a resident of Gunn High School
on Mar 22, 2019 at 12:53 pm

> In college, I read a report about people taking GED tests for someone else that resembled them.

Now that's really lowering the bar on test cheating!


16 people like this
Posted by Real World
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 22, 2019 at 2:18 pm

"Several parents indicted in the admissions scheme took advantage of testing accommodations to secure their children extra time “

The real damage of this scandal Is what it will do to kids who legitimately need accommodations.

The unfairness begins in school, because - if this district is any indication - only the wealthiest parents who can afford lawyers and trained advocates to push/force the district to accommodate their children can get the appropriate testing, IEPs, and accommodations in school. Even when they do get accommodations, only the wealthiest (or school board members) can force continued proper treatment for their children or pay for outside help, rather than badly or not implemented IEPs in school.

Apparently, it's easier to get SAT testing accommodations if the school submits them to the college board and there is a history of accommodation through the school, so right there, the wealthiest are already advantaged without even engaging in outright cheating schemes. (I’m talking about children who deserve accommodations, and the fact that only the wealthy get those.) This scandal will make it harder for those who missed out in school already to get the accommodations they need, especially 2e students. Screwed again by PAUSD.

The National Center for Learning Disabilities says that (off the top of my head) while about 5% of students have formal accommodations, approximately 15% of students have learning disabilities - so twice as many go undiagnosed/unaccommodated than have formal accommodations.

Although the cheating described here is pretty repulsive, I do think people should calm down a little bit about extra time itself, though. If a student doesn’t need the accommodations for extra time -- and provided that’s the only thing they do, I’m not talking about actual cheating — they aren’t likely to do a lot better if they get more time. Students who really need more time, really need the extra time. It makes the difference between their continuing to suffer the extreme negative consequences of their learning disabilities going unrecognized and unaddressed in school, and being able to rise above it because their standardized testing unearths some of the potential their schools squashed for failing to accommodate them. This is especially true for 2e students (otherwise gifted students who also have LD’s), who often don’t get the accommodations they need because they can compensate enough not to seem to utterly fail.

Given that there are so many students whose LD’s aren’t formally diagnosed, often because they lack the resources of their wealthier peers (especially here), I just don’t see extra time (alone) that makes a difference in scores as a problem. Alone, it’s not going to make a huge difference for someone without LD’s, and it’s going to make a huge different for someone with LD’s, especially the segment of students with undiagnosed LD’s. Having the chance to show their potential on these tests where the schools have let them down is a time-honored way for some students to get opportunities in college to meet their potential.

What is a problem is when someone uses that extra time to implement some kind of cheating scheme or otherwise cheats. It would be a terrible injustice if this scandal now makes it even harder for students who have traditionally been able to use national testing to overcome a lack of accommodations in school to demonstrate their potential.


28 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 22, 2019 at 3:07 pm

Annette is a registered user.

@A Different Perspective from Woodside. I'm hoping your comment was written in jest. I'm not a fan of standardized tests and love skiing, too, but that hardly justifies having someone impersonate me and take a test in my name.

This scandal, the reactions to it, the various revelations about who bribed and why, about how the cheating was accomplished, about the various ways in which people cheat, about the unbridled audacity of the very privileged is an indictment of our society. What's being exposed is an approach to parenting that not only disregards personal responsibility and integrity but actively sets the example that those things do not matter. At all.

We really shouldn't be too surprised by the wrong doing by our elected officials; what they do is, apparently, standard operating procedure. Call me square, but I think it is all disgusting and I feel sorry for regular kids who are competing against not just wealth and privilege, but also dishonesty. No wonder teenage anxiety at our schools is high.





5 people like this
Posted by Oldster
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 22, 2019 at 4:56 pm

Maybe PAUSD should label all its students "disabled" when it comes to standardized test pressure and then do the "special accomodations" paperwork only for those who want to take the tests within the normal time limits. If Harvard's latest undergraduate class has the highest disabled label student percentage ever, if that label is good enogh for them it should be good enougn us living at the Harvard of the West town. Thus plan would, however, create a new category of peer-pressure stress for wondering who has the right-stuff for test taking but it would be offset by a massive stress reduction on many more students.

To get enough proctors for the ultra-long test sessions from grammar to high schools, Palo Alto could have a new sort of jury duty/test proctor requirement on our entire adult population. "We're all in this together!" could be the motto to reduce everyone's stress.

The State already has labeled PAUSD schools so highly that if SB50 passes all sorts of housing density zoning changes will automatically happen to get more housing for more students into our great schools. Deeming all our students as disabled for the stress of being stuck in a high performing school district shoud be a no brainer. The rest of us facing summones for proctor duty can repeat that motto to reduce our own stress.


21 people like this
Posted by It's Not Just ACTs & SATs
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 22, 2019 at 5:21 pm

> @A Different Perspective from Woodside. I'm hoping your comment was written in jest. I'm not a fan of standardized tests and love skiing, too, but that hardly justifies having someone impersonate me and take a test in my name.

Uh...it goes beyond ACTs & SATs. CA DMV driver's licenses are also questionably issued by ESL driving testers who overlook certain driving improprieties & pass drivers from overseas without questioning their driving habits.

I take it you drive a car & have often wondered about this.


9 people like this
Posted by just saying
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Mar 22, 2019 at 5:29 pm

My junior son has a 504, previously an IEP beginning after kindergarten. We have chosen for him NOT to have extended time on the ACT as the PSAT with time and a half was much too long for him to stay focused. I think most parents really try to offer the right kind of encouragement, and hopefully pull back when necessary. My son is a happy junior and for that I am immensely grateful.


6 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 23, 2019 at 10:36 am

The high schools involved in the SAT/ACT scams should be investigated too. Students can’t receive test accommodations unless their teachers support the accommodations and the school guidance/college counselor approves/submits them. In the Notre Dame case, the school played a part in the fraud because the school had to verify that the student qualified for and needed accommodations which was false information. If Notre Dame had been honest the student would have never been approved for a private proctor.


4 people like this
Posted by PA Resident
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 23, 2019 at 1:19 pm

Very well said Annette - I would just add: A bias against special needs doing everything they can to get them to leave so they don't have to spend the money and effort on actually educating them according to the law, taking away from raises, and it doesn't help their AP Brand.

A PAMF Psychiatrist said to us, nothing has really changed in the schools, they don't seem to really care. What they do is window dressing, that is why we still have more and more students ending up here or in the hospital for serious mental health issues.


6 people like this
Posted by Grumpy Old Guy
a resident of Palo Alto Orchards
on Mar 24, 2019 at 10:33 am

I would imagine that if you told a kid at the beginning of high school,

"Here's $75K waiting for you. Get a perfect score or near perfect score on the SAT or ACT. . . and we're talking Cabo for the spring break and a new car"

We wouldn't have these type of scandals.


3 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 24, 2019 at 12:03 pm

Posted by A Different Perspective, a resident of Woodside

>> So basically we still took both tests & their was no variance or inconsistency in the results.

As others have commented, it probably was harmless in this case. Or is that "harmmles"? I dunno.

But, if cheating is sufficiently widespread, as it seems to be, it could actually be affecting the distribution of high scores. While someone getting over 750 when they only ever got 550 before would probably set off an alarm, would the alarms go off if someone who got 640's before got 710's? How accurate is the distribution of scores in the 650-750 range - "genius" level but not "supergenius" level?

In my opinion, as expectations towards "meritocracy" are growing, the pressure to cheat on these tests seems to be growing as well, and therefore, security needs to be enhanced. Better authentication, better proctoring, better end-to-end security of tests and results. I'm losing confidence in the validity of the tests.


8 people like this
Posted by A Solution to ACT/SAT Cheating
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 24, 2019 at 2:08 pm

The reason for cheating...winning & losing.

Which is why the oftentimes scoffed at 'participation trophies' handed out in youth soccer serve such a valuable purpose in instilling self-esteem & ensuring that everyone is a winner.

The same could be applied to elite colleges & universities. Repeal GPA requirements & test scores altogether & instead have a random lottery with proof of financial backing to pay tuition.

That way everything would be left up to chance & everyone has an opportunity to attend the college of their preference.




1 person likes this
Posted by Real World
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 24, 2019 at 4:07 pm

@Solution,
It's a nice thought, but wouldn't work in the real world. Colleges have their own flavors of learning environments, and a lot of what goes into choosing students has to do with ensuring the students are a good fit for the learning environment. Just because students are all qualified does not mean they should all go to that school. Students have very different motivations. I remember hearing from a fellow student that she was really upset by how hard the work was in college -- she said, she had worked so hard to get in, she thought it was like some kind of exclusive club where once she was in, life would be easy. Meanwhile, other students like me without much challenge or opportunity in high school were glad to finally have a challenge and resources.

Again, I hope people separate the need for accommodations from actual cheating. If accommodations like time alone make a huge difference to a child who didn't have a diagnosis warranting it, that child probably needed a diagnosis. The majority of students who don't need accommodations will not do better just because they get more time. I read something by a 2e student where he talked about being tired of the assumptions in both directions, likening it to glasses. What if people assumed that just because you wear glasses that you are either incapable of seeing, or that you are getting an unfair advantage because you have glasses? it's exhausting to constantly be assaulted by that. IF someone who has no prescription for glasses gets them and can finally see, this is not an unfair advantage.

What IS unfair is that we have an ultra-resourced district in which one has to be able to afford expensive lawyers in order to get the accommodations. Students who don't have the money, or who live in poorer districts, probably won't ever be on the same playing field.


6 people like this
Posted by paly grad
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 25, 2019 at 5:10 am

this happens all the time. in my senior year, there was one peer from a very wealthy family who donated a significant amount of money to both to palo alto high and an ivy league school. the student was caught cheating multiple times at paly without any repercussions (the student was forced to retake the tests).

when that student went to the ivy league university, the student was caught cheating again and was put on academic suspension. paly voice covered it as the student was taking a "gap year" to do volunteer work in south america.

while the student or their family did not pay someone else to take the test, it is clear that the family's donations to the high school served in a capacity to look the other way when it came to the student repeatedly cheating.

what i have learned from surviving palo alto high school, the college admissions process and the "real world" of working is that it actually does not matter where you go to university. i know plenty of ivy leagues graduates working as receptionists and state school graduates with highly-rewarding, successful careers. you, as a person, is what's important. i wish paly teachers, guidance counselors, other staff, parents and the whole community actually promoted this lesson instead of needing to get the best grades and go to the best university in order to qualify as a success in life.


10 people like this
Posted by An Ivy League Diploma Should Account For Something
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Mar 25, 2019 at 8:25 am

> i know plenty of ivy leagues graduates working as receptionists...

What a waste of an ivy league diploma. Their parents must be very disappointed.

You don't even need an AA from Foothill or De Anza college to land that kind of work.

While some might call it a 'stepping stone', you don't need to go to a fancy college to subsequently work as a office clerk or a food server...like what's the point? Just to tell folks you went there>


1 person likes this
Posted by member1
a resident of another community
on Mar 25, 2019 at 10:42 am

member1 is a registered user.

Does anyone just use the school counselors at Paly or do they all hire out people to support kids? curious if this is hired help or coming from the schools. Seems like everything at this school is outsourced like a fancy boutique.


Like this comment
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 25, 2019 at 11:28 pm

"... about the various ways in which people cheat, about the unbridled audacity of the very privileged is an indictment of our society. What's being exposed is an approach to parenting that not only disregards personal responsibility and integrity but actively sets the example that those things do not matter. At all."

But it does matter. Get into the zeitgeist. Which parents are the more supportive, those who pay $75k for stellar ACT outcomes, or those who only shell out, say, $50k? Then there are the seemingly uncaring parents in Woodside who left their offspring to take the tests for one another on their own, backed by no financial outlay at all. Cocktail party bragging victories now go not with the most prestigious schools, but to whoever puts out the most baksheesh.


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