What's ethical? | November 7, 2008 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - November 7, 2008

What's ethical?

Fairness, equity, cheating — and applying to college

by Seung-Yeon Choi

Despite the growing popularity of private SAT tutoring and college counseling, questions remain as to whether they provide students with an unfair advantage over peers. Some claim tutors, coaches and counselors give an inequitable edge in admissions only to students who can afford them.

And for companies that don't blatantly advertise cheating — a simple Internet search reveals plenty offering to write application essays — the line between help and flat-out dishonesty is unclear.

That line may never be drawn, at least by the state of California.

Legally, the California Department of Education does not have jurisdiction over private college-preparation centers or individual counselors, according to David Kopperud, an education-programs consultant.

Regulating private facilities is controversial, he said. Rather, it is up to lawmakers to take up the rallying cry.

"The legislature could propose laws to regulate centers offering college counseling and could give private services for those who can offer it."

For now, however, that leaves the college-application industry free from oversight.

Companies interviewed by the Weekly said they don't cross ethical bounds. Rather, they help students avoid purple prose by coaxing them towards engaging topics, they said.

Andover College Prep coaches instructors to help students write interesting essays, according to Nathan Allen, president of Andover College Preparation Center and former executive director of Princeton Review.

"Students are given zero credit for writing interesting English papers," Allen said. "It's a matter of helping students find what is interesting and giving them good feedback."

How much help with essays is ethical?

"While it is fine for a student to solicit input and feedback on his/her essay from teachers or family, we are concerned and find it unethical when someone other than the student writes or edits substantive portions of the essay," Shawn Abbott, Stanford University's director of admissions, said of tutoring assistance.

In other words, as long as the student writes the majority of the essay, having multiple editors is fine, in Abbott's view.

A simple Google search reveals websites peddling prewritten essays to students. Cardinal Education, an education consulting firm run by Stanford University graduate Allen Koh, advertises customized essays on its website.

But the instructors do not write essays for anyone, according to Koh, class of 2003.

Instead, Cardinal Education's tutors teach students to write appropriate personal statements and steer them away from "hackneyed topics."

Another criticism of test-preparation companies is that their benefits reach only those who can afford them, disadvantaging those who can't.

The companies' own claims of score improvement demonstrate the advantage of tutoring. The average improvement for students at Andover College prep was 340 points, according to its online study.

"Thus, our guarantee is 250 points," Allen said.

It's an even better guarantee than other companies, he said.

"You can have your money back if you don't improve for companies like Princeton Review and Kaplan. That may sound good, but this essentially means that they guarantee only a one-point guarantee."

Akshay Udiavar, a former student and later tutor with Fremont-based Excel Test Prep, agreed that private tutoring raises scores.

"[Personal tutoring] made it a lot easier to change what I was doing and improve my score," he said. "I would recommend everyone who is planning on taking the SAT to take a course."

Not everyone, however, can afford such courses.

About 52 hours of SAT classes at Andover College Prep costs $1,149-$1,195. Princeton Review charges $999 for 46 hours.

Cardinal Education charges students depending on their top choices. Applying to "basic schools" such as California State Universities requires fewer meetings and less tuition than applying to prestigious Ivy League universities, Koh said.

"We meet once a week with students until their deadline for applications for UCs. ... It becomes exponentially complex once the student applies to more difficult schools."

As to whether wealthier applicants get an unfair leg up from coaching, Allen argued it's a way for them to successfully compete with minorities and recruited athletes.

"If you're not black, Hispanic or a recruit, you're already at a disadvantage," Allen said. "It's equally unfair that the minority gets an advantage. You can give me a reasonably smart black kid and the smartest Asian kid, and I can tell you that the black kid is going to have a far easier time getting into college than the Asian one."

That argument doesn't convince everyone.

Palo Alto High School senior Sylvia Price, who is white, chose not to take SAT preparation classes partially because she objects to the disparities that they create in the admissions process, despite potential counterbalancing factors such as affirmative action and athletic recruitment.

"I think affirmative action mostly helps middle- and upper-class minorities who have similar advantages to the rich people," Price said. "I think the rich have the advantages in every aspect."

However, Koh's company provides free services for underprivileged and "particularly talented" students, he said.

"I don't feel like how much your parents make should influence what college you go to," Koh said.

He added that Cardinal Education tutors the Menlo Atherton High School football team and last year kept players' grades high enough to remain on the team.

He cited the huge amounts of time he poured into the program. "I never had a Sunday dinner with friends or acquaintances for about eight months," he said. "[The athletes] needed to know I was going to be there for them."

Udiavar, the former tutor, acknowledged the inequalities in the system. He said he hoped college admissions officers recognize that students' test scores fluctuate depending on social class.

"I know a lot of test-prep centers charge tons of money for their services," Udiavar said. "While this may sometimes be unfair, colleges definitely look at financial situations when judging scores. It's not a blind formula, so I guess it evens out in the end."

Although Stanford University considers students' socioeconomic status the school's need-blind policy means it cannot admit students based on financial situations, according to Stanford's Abbott. 

And admissions officers can't tell which students have used these services, he said.

"We know test preparation and private consulting occur, and this assumption is factored into our overall evaluation," Abbott said. "However, it is quite difficult to know exactly who has taken advantage of these services."

On the other hand, holistically viewing applications can help validate students' writing capabilities.

"A student may receive assistance with the personal statement, but we will also be evaluating writing scores on the SAT and ACT, grades received in English and humanities classes," Abbott said.

"Strong writing ability needs to be reflected in multiple areas of the application in order for the writing to be considered compelling."

The decried unfairness has led some schools seriously to consider rethinking admissions, including the University of California.

Former UC President Richard C. Atkinson proposed in 2001 eliminating the SAT as an admissions requirement because, he said, it favored higher-income families. The proposal was not adopted and the SAT Reasoning Test is still required, although the suggestion to drop it has been made again since.

Despite concerns of equity and ethics, the college-application industry is likely to continue to be popular, driven by competition for a seat at top colleges, Paly senior Price predicted.

"Sometimes people have to use prep to make themselves able to create the best possible future for themselves," she said.

"Applicants are scared that they won't get into a good college, so they spend the money to try to become as perfect as possible to get into a good school."

Koh agreed that some companies prey on the fears of parents and students. "There's a disgusting amount of fear-mongering in my industry."

Seung-Yeon Choi is a Palo Alto High School senior and a reporter and editor for The Paly Voice website. She can be e-mailed at Sychoi2002@yahoo.com.


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Posted by David
a resident of another community
on Mar 5, 2013 at 12:23 pm

Good article Seung Yeon

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Posted by Hmmm
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 5, 2013 at 12:47 pm

Some people don't realize that Asians don't qualify for affirmative action. We are over-represented in education so we aren't considered minorities to colleges and we receive no breaks in the college admission process.

Meanwhile, students who have names of minority decent qualify for affirmative action despite having the same high quality upbringing as other Americans. Affirmative action should be disengaged.

Like this comment
Posted by Agreeable
a resident of Community Center
on Mar 5, 2013 at 1:32 pm

I agree; affirmative action has over-run its course and is no longer needed. It is high time it was dismantled.

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Posted by Hmmm
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 5, 2013 at 2:10 pm

@Agreeable: Thanks, "dismantled" is the word I meant to use.

A good friend of ours is African-American and an extremely intelligent, highly successful person and he dislikes affirmative action because everyone assumes his success is not earned, but due to affirmative action.

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Posted by Chris Zaharias
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 5, 2013 at 3:58 pm

Paid college test/essay preparation or extracurricular activity planning is unfair and a long-term detriment to both the student who wins, the student who loses, and society. If you don't understand that, you are devoid of a moral compass.

I don't mean to imply that no one should pay for these services. Clearly, we are in a market-based, competitive economy, and I can see how people might *think* they're helping the student, and they're free to do so - it is not my place to try to prevent them from doing so.

That said, *as with* private sports leagues, PEDs and/or HGH in sports, paid college entrance tactics cause long-term damage, either by making the student less prepared for the demands of life during or after college, or by robbing society of the opportunity to best equip its most high-potential students.

Palo Alto - the city I live in - is morally repugnant in this respect, but to all you students who don't have the best college entrance prep money can buy, don't worry, for while it may take you a bit longer to get there, you'll earn your way to your spot in life and won't have to wonder whether you succeeded on your own, or because of Mom, Dad and their bank account.

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Posted by Achievement
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 5, 2013 at 6:23 pm

I don't think standardized testing has changed so much that "private" tutoring is more advantageous than taking the practice tests over and over again.

Good/solid students at our high schools are generally very well prepared to take the tests even without prep, the extra practice helps on the margin.

Paly has a free system on Naviance where students can do Test Prep. You get test taking tips as well. It costs nothing to practice, and that is what the private tutors do anyway.

As for people getting someone to write fake essays, Both the SAT and ACT have a writing section, and colleges cross check the essays with the test. If your writing sample on the test is crappy and your essay is brilliant, you can get caught.

Cheating has always happened and all nationalities are guilty. I find it silly that people complain that Hispanics or African Americans advantages because as long as schools balance out the diversity in their school, it benefits all ethnicities.

Either way, colleges will be selective according to a variety of factors, and even if they want affirmative action, the most selective schools still require the grades and overall achievement which are not a monopoly of one race or another.

High achieving kids will stand out no matter what.

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Posted by Hmmm
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 5, 2013 at 8:55 pm

@Achievement: You don't understand affirmative action. It allows the minority applicants to have lower scores for admission while others need higher scores for admission. It's not just making the college more diverse when all are at the same playing level. The theory is that minorities have less opportunities at a good education due to their families and lack of finances. I worked in town at our top college and witnessed this in action. Lowering standards to gain diversity is faulty thinking.

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Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 5, 2013 at 9:59 pm

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought that both the UC and CSU systems do not use race as a factor due to Prop 209?

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Posted by Hmmm
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 5, 2013 at 10:20 pm

@Crescent Park Dad: I think it only means they cannot look at the race on general applications. If the person is a minority, it falls under different affirmative action rules. But not completely sure of my answer.

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Posted by Cheaters
a resident of Gunn High School
on Mar 6, 2013 at 7:31 am

Some people, most often foreigners, will stop at no cost to get an edge. Since English is not the first language of most of them, they feel they need a big advantage. However, since their children have spoken English and gone to the best schools here all their lives, this is not the reality.

Taking practice tests and getting coached on answers is tantamount to cheating, and creates a playing field that puts certain wealthy foreigners on top. They are already being given priority in universities because as foreigners, they pay far higher rates. The playing field is far from level....it is the native Californians who need an advantage getting into California schools, even though they are who the UC system was actually created for in the first place.

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Posted by Geez
a resident of Greater Miranda
on Mar 6, 2013 at 7:43 am

Oh good grief, people!! It isn't "fair' for kids to have parents who care enough about their kids' future to work their tails off to make enough money to supplement their kids' education at their own time and expense?
Give me a break. It isn't "cheating" or "unfair", it is classic evolution, survival of the fittest. It isn't "fair" that entire species die out from an inability to adapt, but it is the way of evolution. Stop complaining, and either put your money into charity for kids without parents who care enough or with parents who can't afford tutoring to provide them the tutoring, or get to work raising your own kids the same way. If you don't want to, fine..just don't complain and whine!

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Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Mar 6, 2013 at 8:06 am

What isn't "fair" to me is that the teachers freely admit that they are not preparing students for SATs because they do not have the time in the curriculum to do so.

That begs me to ask the question as to why? I understood that the high school curriculum was designed to teach what is necessary for college acceptance. If that is not the case then there is something wrong with our curriculum.

SATs are required for those college bound students which must be the large proportion of PAUSD students. Shouldn't their high school education be disigned to get them there?

I know from speaking with teachers that they do not teach the tricks that SAT prep classes teach. I know from students that they do not feel prepared for SATs without special classes to teach them these tricks.

From my own school days, my teachers prepared me for college preparation from the first day of the school year. For them to have not done that would have seemed unethical to them.

Why can't PAUSD teach and prepare for SATs?


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Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 6, 2013 at 8:17 am

At least at Ivy's, each ethnic group has a different range of acceptable SAT scores. Asians have to score on average 140 points higher than whites, etc. Plus there are defacto quotas for each group. If you think it's a level playing field based on meritocracy, you are sadly mistaken.

Web Link

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Posted by former Paly parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Mar 6, 2013 at 8:35 am

No question there is gaming of the system by wealthy Tiger Moms; the prepping and paid tutoring can be in advance of the curriculum and to the degree that the student is effectively a packaged product without individual initiative and one who does not do his or her own work. That crosses a line and gives unfair advantage (in an ugly way, to be sure) over peers with whom one is in direct competition, but who do their own work and make their own choices.

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Posted by Kaffeeklatch
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Mar 6, 2013 at 2:03 pm

Went out for coffee with a couple of friends this morning, and nearby two women, one Iranian and one American, were complaining loudly about the fact that Palo Alto teachers are unfair to non-Asian children at all levels of schools. They also felt that Paly does not prepare teens for college as well as Gunn does. Why would there be a difference between the two high schools when it comes to college prep?

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Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 6, 2013 at 3:33 pm

@ Kaffeeklatch: You're eavesdropping on a BS conversation. Pure uneducated speculation.

Go to the Paly or Gunn college center and look at their PAUSD (anonymous) senior tracking books and where the kids from both schools went to college. Both schools place students at a amazing schools nationwide.

Nothing like pure data to stop the rumors and lies.

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Posted by SHS grad
a resident of another community
on Mar 6, 2013 at 9:12 pm

If your child need a lot of expensive paid tutoring to get into a college, perhaps they are looking at the wrong college. I see a bit of an obsession with Ivy Leagues around here, and they are not the best fit for all students. Not because the kids aren't "good enough", but colleges all have different specialties. I do remember when I went to school my teacher focused on science experiments in science, which did not help on the AP exams or SATs, but certainly taught us a lot more about science. Gunn at the time focused on writing essays so the kids would all score 5s on their AP exams.

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Posted by Ohhhhh, yeahhhhh
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Mar 7, 2013 at 3:54 pm

former parent is right, there are a considerable number of Tiger Mothers here who work hard and pay big to game the system in their children's favor. I have even seen it at the kindergarten level, where the parents do the children's homework for them ( and it is glaringly obvious). Yet, if another parent or teacher calls "foul", they simply play the race card and threaten a lawsuit or a transfer to a private school. They essentially get away with cheating.

Once they get into the real world, it often shows up...but they have still displaced many bright and honest American students who did all their own work, and REALLY learned from it, rather than rote repeating of it.

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Posted by paly parent
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 7, 2013 at 6:10 pm

I think there is a huge difference between types of tutoring. SAT/ACT test prep that give students hints and practice is perfectly fair and is not going to produce a student that gets into a school and can't do the college work. Some kids are better test takers than others, SAT test prep levels the field. In the case of my niece, she was a very good student and vary hard working, but not great at test taking. Took the SAT's once and the score didn't really reflect her abilities and potential. She took a couple week long class over the summer, retook the exam and did much better. She graduated from college a couple years ago (did very well in school) has a jobs she loves, etc.

Contrast that with my neighbor who had academic tutors thru middle and high school, gets into a good college then comes home a semester later because he was not really prepared to do the work on his own.

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Posted by Ohhhhh, yeahhhhhh
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Mar 7, 2013 at 7:15 pm

Most of the Tiger Parents in this town have their kids in after-school tutoring as well as SAT tutoring. They do no after school sports, clubs, or activities. They have no friends outside of family.

When we lived in Mission San Jose, it was a predominantly Asian community. Frustrated teens would often sneak out of their upper-story bedrooms after bedtime, get caught sneaking back in at 3:00 am, and a huge, loud fight would ensue complete with screaming, car door slamming, house door slamming, and even window breaking.

This can only lead to pent-up adults who go off to college, get a little freedom, and take too much! Or college grads who are thoroughly burned out on life as they have known it.

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Posted by jake
a resident of Community Center
on Mar 7, 2013 at 8:51 pm

OK.. Next new editorial topic "Being rich is unethical"

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Posted by former Paly parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Mar 8, 2013 at 8:57 am

@ jake
Don't equate Tiger Mom behavior with "being rich."Although money helps, Tiger Mom behavior goes waaay beyond the fact that someone has money to spend.

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Posted by OK
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 8, 2013 at 9:11 am

I think things even out - it's not unethical to push/pay your way ahead, and it's certainly not unethical to have admission policies that encourage a balanced student body.

Kids of any ethnicity who have the parents and the means to receive supplemental education have an advantage.

Underrepresented minorities who are first generation college goers, or poor get a lift from college admissions because schools don't just want a bunch of hyper-tutored kids.

The ones who get left out are usually the middle. Schools need to start making room for regular kids too - not just the elite or the non-elite. They might be the healthiest bunch.

It's otherwise good for everyone to push for education in any shape way or form.

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Posted by A Parent
a resident of Greendell/Walnut Grove
on Mar 13, 2013 at 10:28 pm

I don't believe there's anything wrong with studying and test prep. I agree that a child whose parent created a false profile of their achievements will end up taking the spot from one who was allowed to develop his or her own authentic identity and this is not only unethical, it is a waste of what is supposed to be a good school. I know of a very high profile school that accepts a lot of these straw students only to find them having breakdowns once they have to survive on their own. This same school boasts that their admissions officers are able to see through the fakery. Fortunately, there are plenty of great schools for genuine students to attend. One day, perhaps the name brand schools will be recognized as the factories they are and the hysteria to get in will die down. As long as we fall for their brand, this will continue.