For Noah Coates, the SAT and ACT were grueling, multiday marathons. The Baltimore County student took each exam in a private room, with twice the normal time, because he has dyslexia and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. As he recalled, he still couldn’t finish.
But after revelations last month about cheating and bribery in college admissions, Coates fears a blowback that could curtail accommodations for students with special needs on high-stakes exams.
“I was disappointed to see that someone was trying to exploit something that was made to help other people who need it,” Coates said. He likened the alleged testing cheats to drivers who claim disability parking spots without permits. “It’s frustrating and annoying. Just because it’s open, doesn’t mean you should take it.”
The federal investigation dubbed Operation Varsity Blues uncovered elaborate plots to get children of rich parents into prominent schools such as Georgetown, Yale and Stanford universities and the University of Southern California.
One tactic involved bribing coaches to designate applicants as recruited athletes even though they possessed little or no intercollegiate sports potential. Then there was the part of the alleged scheme that troubles students who need extra time on college admissions exams: Special accommodations on the ACT and SAT were illegitimately secured to provide cover for cheating at compromised testing sites in Houston and West Hollywood.
Fifty people were charged in the conspiracy, including a former senior athletic official, nine current or former coaches and 33 parents. No students were charged. Twelve defendants entered not guilty pleas March 25 in federal court in Boston, and 15 parents appeared in court Friday. The mastermind, admissions consultant William “Rick” Singer of Newport Beach, Calif., pleaded guilty March 12 to racketeering conspiracy and other crimes and is cooperating with investigators.
Some educators, stunned by the scandal, said it underscored that parents and students pay far too much attention to standardized test scores.
“I’m a big believer that a person’s fate should not be determined by a morning sitting for an exam,” said Michael M. Crow, president of Arizona State University. Class work, he said, matters far more. “You can’t cheat for your high school grade-point average over four years.”
Brazen test cheating is what the FBI sought to document, with purported learning disabilities central to the scheme. Singer — identified in an affidavit as Cooperating Witness 1 — explained the scheme to a father in a wiretapped telephone conversation. The excerpt suggests that Singer had connections to a psychologist who provides tests for learning disabilities, and it underscores how he manipulated testing conditions at the locations in Texas and California.
“We need to get your daughter tested for a learning difference,” the affidavit quotes Witness 1 (Singer) as saying. “Here’s why. If she gets tested for a learning difference, and let’s say it’s my person that does it, or whoever you want to do it, I need that person to get her 100 percent extended time over multiple days. So what that means is, we’ll have to show that there’s some discrepancies in her learning, which there’s gotta be anyways. And if she gets 100 percent . . . then — I own two schools — I can have her test at one of my schools, and I can guarantee her a score.
“If it’s ACT, I can guarantee her a score in the, in the 30s. And if it’s the SAT, I can guarantee her a score in the 1400s. Now, all of a sudden, her test score does not become an issue with all the colleges.” Singer said the price for all this was $75,000.
The affidavit recounts several episodes in which an expert took the admissions test in place of a given student or changed an answer sheet to help secure a desired score. The maximum on the ACT is 36; on the SAT, it is 1600.
The College Board, which owns the SAT, and the ACT said the investigation shows cheaters will be held accountable. Officials with the two nonprofit testing agencies said they stand by their processes for handling requests for special accommodations.
“The individuals were caught,” ACT spokesman Ed Colby said. “The system worked.”
Publicly available data on the use of testing accommodations is limited. In the 2017 graduating class, the ACT reported, more than 102,000 students took the test with extended time. That was about 5 percent of all test takers. Normally, the test runs two hours and 55 minutes, not counting breaks or the optional essay-writing section.
Extensions vary. Some students get 50 percent more time; others get even more, over multiple days.
Those with extended time scored, on average, 18.7 on the 36-point scale. Those who took it on the standard clock scored an average of 21.1.
The most recent public data from the College Board shows that about 39,600 students in the 2014 graduating class — 2 percent of the total — took the SAT under “nonstandard conditions.” That term, the College Board said, reflected those who received an accommodation. Their scores averaged 1423 on the SAT’s old 2400-point scale. The average that year for all test takers was 1497.
The College Board says the number of people who take the SAT with accommodations fluctuates from year to year, but the share is generally about 4 percent.
Advocates want to ensure continued access. “We have to remain vigilant,” said Lindsay E. Jones, president and chief executive of the National Center for Learning Disabilities, which is based in Washington. Too often, she said, students with disabilities face stigma when they seek help. “There’s a big myth out there,” she said, that anyone with accommodations has “an unfair advantage.”
The practice of granting accommodations goes back decades. Some visually impaired students use test booklets in Braille or large type. Some with certain medical conditions, disorders or disabilities are allowed to stand, walk or pace during the test, or get extra breaks. Some are assisted by readers or scribes.
The College Board says that more than 200,000 students a year seek accommodations on the SAT or other tests, including the PSAT and Advanced Placement exams. The majority of requests are granted, but the College Board declined to be more precise.
The ACT said virtually all students granted accommodations have a history of using them on tests in school. “There are exceptions,” the ACT said, “but they are rare.”
Both testing organizations have long been on guard for potential abuse of requests for extended time.
A key policy shift occurred in 2003. Previously, the testing agencies sent scores to colleges with a notation if special conditions had been granted. But advocates for the disabled said that was unfair. Since 2003, SAT and ACT scores have been sent without any accommodation flags.
Some critics called that change an invitation to abuse. Singer, in the affidavit, is quoted as telling a client “all the wealthy families” have “figured out” the edge of extended time. “The playing field is not fair,” he said.
William Stixrud, a clinical neuropsychologist in Silver Spring, Md.,who tests children for issues that affect learning, said he occasionally hears of college admissions consultants who advise clients to seek extra time so students can get better test scores. Stixrud said he emphasizes to parents there are no guarantees about a diagnosis or whether it will yield approval of accommodations on the tests. “It’s rare that somebody would approach me and want an unfair advantage for their kids,” he said.
Savannah Treviño-Casias, 23, who is majoring in psychology at Arizona State, said she has dyscalculia, a math-related disability, that was first diagnosed in sixth grade. She was able to obtain extra time on the SAT and take the exam in a separate room with minimal distractions. She has continued to use accommodations in college when necessary.
The cheating scandal outrages her. She fears it will fuel skepticism of students like her who must navigate school with “invisible” disabilities.
“For students like me, who actually do have a documented disability,” she said, “it makes it so much harder for us to get accommodations and have our teachers and professors actually believe us.”