"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.
• 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.