SAT Monitors Napped, Ignored Rules, Teens Say

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 17, 2006

They started the SAT that Saturday morning more than an hour late, not helpful for a college-entrance test many consider an ordeal under the best circumstances. But the situation worsened for eight students with learning disabilities in one second-floor testing room at Woodrow Wilson Senior High School in Northwest Washington.

According to three of the students who were there Oct. 14, the proctor and the associate test supervisor in the room let students work on some sections long after time expired and on others ahead of time. They let students make cellphone calls and eat in the room. Lacking a clock, they let students time the examination themselves with a microwave oven timer.

Occasionally, the three students said, the two test administrators dozed off. All of those actions were flagrant rule violations. Some test experts called the episode, which occurred at one of the country's busiest testing centers, a striking example of persistent problems with the administration of the SAT. Students called it worse.

Penelope Meyers, a senior at the private Edmund Burke School in Northwest, said she burst into tears when she got into her mother's car at 4:30 p.m., nearly nine hours after she had arrived at the exam site.

"It was the most bogus and corrupt joke I had ever heard of," she said.

Hana Viswanathan, a senior at the private Washington International School, also in Northwest, offered an SAT word to describe what happened: debacle.

The Educational Testing Service, which administers the SAT for the College Board, agreed. It canceled the exam scores for all eight students after looking into reports of testing problems. Ray Nicosia, test security director for ETS, said the students can have letters sent to the college admissions officials to absolve them for missing any deadlines. The students also may take a special makeup test as early as tomorrow.

Nicosia said the associate supervisor and proctor have been told they will never be rehired by ETS. Extra training and more staff have been promised for the Dec. 2 administration of the SAT scheduled at Wilson.

The D.C. school system rents the building to ETS but does not administer the exam.

ETS would not identify the proctor or the associate supervisor.

Some SAT experts said the ETS response to the procedural meltdown does not solve the problem of poor training among the part-time supervisors and proctors, usually counselors and teachers who can make from $78 to $145 for a five- to seven-hour testing day.

"What is unusual here is the sheer magnitude of problems encountered at one site in one day. It sounds like 'the Keystone Kops administer the SAT,' " said Bob Schaeffer, public education director for a group called FairTest, based in Cambridge, Mass. He is a frequent SAT critic.

Nicosia said Wilson High is one of the largest test sites in the country, with as many as 800 students taking the SAT on a given day. He said that some complaints are expected when so many students are served but that the number of mishaps is small. He said the Wilson test center director, whom he would not identify, has not been dismissed. If ETS hears too many complaints about a test center, it can move the testing to another site, Nicosia said, but that has not happened at Wilson.

Nicosia added that ETS asked an independent auditor last year to review 700 of its 4,500 test centers. He said the firm reported that "overwhelmingly they are following the standards very well."

Guidance counselors at other high schools say they often hear of SAT administration problems at Wilson. Ned Johnson, who runs a test preparation company in Bethesda, said he observed crowds of students rushing the doors of Wilson one day when testing was delayed. He said his clients have complained often about cellphones ringing during tests.

The eight students whose scores were canceled had learning disabilities that allowed them half again as much time on the test as regular students, or 38 minutes for each exam section that ordinarily takes 25. Their total test time was supposed to be 5 hours and 37.5 minutes, compared with 3 hours and 45 minutes for students without disabilities.

But those rules collapsed, said Meyers, Viswanathan and another Burke student, Gabe Loewinger. When the two supervising officials said they had no clock, they agreed to Loewinger's suggestion to use the microwave.

At one point, Meyers said, the associate supervisor noticed that a few students had finished one section early and told them that they could start the next. Meyers, who knew this violated the rules, did not start. The official came over and whispered in her ear to go ahead.

Meyers replied that she was not going to cheat. The administrator, according to Meyers, said: "It doesn't matter. There's only a few minutes left."

Meyers said several students violated the rule against working on previous sections of the test. The officials, she said, "saw students doing it and allowed it. They were often sleeping, and snoring, or had left the room and didn't care to monitor."

In her complaint to ETS, Viswanathan wrote that the two officials "repeatedly used their cellular telephones and talked between themselves loudly. Conversations and students' questions towards them were addressed loudly and blatantly interrupted other test takers. . . . The students themselves also had their cellphones turned on and answered them in the middle of sections."

When Meyers complained to one official about the administration of the test, she said the woman told her that she did not see a problem.

Nicosia said associate supervisors are paid $95 to run a standard test and $145 for an extended test, such as the one taken by the eight students. Proctors, who help the associate supervisors, make $78 for a regular test and $121 for an extended test.

ETS spokesman Tom Ewing said that one of the officials who supervised the eight students works for D.C. public schools and that the other used to.

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