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Varsity Blues Scandal

The college admissions scandal of 2019 has mesmerized us all. It has so many elements that arrest our attention: celebrities doing bad things, eye-popping payouts, greed, corruption, cheating, and systemic fraud. If you have time to peruse the 204-page affidavit filed in the federal lawsuit, it reads like a script in an upcoming Adam McKay movie. For a quick take on the who’s and what’s of the scandal, take a look at our coverage here.

The story of William Rick Singer, mastermind of the $25 million fraud, will surely play out in paperback and on the big screen. You have the criminal conspiracy (which implicates the hallowed halls of some of our most prestigious institutions) and you also have the affluent families seeking to advance the trajectories of their children, willing to subvert a trusted system. Test-scores were manipulated, grades were procured, photos were staged and doctored, athletic careers were invented whole cloth.

Packed in this narrative are issues of fairness and access, power and privilege, and the intersection of shadow capitalism and higher education.

Money and access

Parents of all stripes use whatever resources they have to secure advantages for their children; this is not surprising. Parents move to more expensive homes in better school districts. They send their children to private schools. They hire private tutors, coaches and counselors, and provide educational opportunities that only money can buy. Some even buy libraries and endow professorships to help their children secure admission at selective colleges. There are many ways that money tips the scales in our society, advantaging some and disadvantaging others. Collectively, we are grappling with growing economic disparity. Questions of access are particularly fraught in higher education, and this scandal puts these divisions into high relief.

This scandal has drawn attention to the role that money plays in higher education, through the sanctioned pathways – private donations and legacy admissions – and the unsanctioned pathways, the “side door” that Singer promised his clients. We have historically tolerated the sanctioned use of money to gain access, but, thankfully, our society will not tolerate the shadowy pathway that Singer exploited. Now that we are staring blankly at the leverage money brings to higher education, some of us are now questioning the sanctioned pathways: should the effects of legacy status, athletics, and the development-office carry such weight in the admissions process? To what degree do these institutions cater to their own interests, versus serving the larger social good and putting merit above other considerations?

Testing Fraud

As a provider of test preparation services, I find the testing fraud perpetrated by Singer and his associates to be particularly concerning. Singer manipulated the system to his advantage, leaving honest and hard-working test takers behind as collateral damage. Singer’s abuse of testing accommodations has cast doubt upon a fundamental resource for students with legitimate disabilities. 

There are numerous pathways to cheat on a standardized test, and the testing entities are always working to minimize the effects of bad actors. Every major incident of cheating leads to new developments in security procedures. After the 2011 Long Island SAT/ACT cheating scandal, where students were paying thousands of dollars to have stand-ins take their SATs and ACTs for them, the testing entities tightened up security protocols, requiring students to upload photographs in advance of testing administrations and tightening ID requirements. As a result of widespread test-leaking overseas, the ACT replaced paper tests with Computer Based ACTs for all international students in September 2018, which allowed the testing entity to minimize potential test exposure in advance of the administration dates.

This current scandal will force the ACT, Inc. and the College Board to reconsider how they handle testing accommodations, particularly those that take place outside of regular test dates. It will also drive the testing giants closer to the adoption of digital testing and computer-adaptive testing with greater security protocols.

How He Did It

Singer understood that if he controlled the proctoring and administration of an accommodated test, he could directly determine the outcome of the test and guarantee scores within very narrow ranges. In some cases, Singer coached the families and students to feign disabilities to influence psychological evaluations. In the transcript of the affidavit Singer advises:

“I also need to tell [your daughter] when she gets tested, to be as, to be stupid, not to be as smart as she is. The goal is to be slow, to be not as bright, all that, so we show discrepancies.”

This is horrifying on so many levels.  

In other cases, Singer worked with a cooperating psychologist who violated his ethical and legal standards to generate dishonest psychological evaluations. Singer helped the parents navigate the accommodations application and appeals process, and then he helped the parents secure alternate testing dates (by fabricating scheduling conflicts with the normal testing dates) and locations. Typically, the alternate location was one of two testing centers (a public high school in Houston, TX and a private college prep school in West Hollywood, CA) where he had bought off the test administrators for roughly $10k per incidence of cheating.

Singer then sent in one of his employees who was paid – again, typically $10k per test – to do one of three things: take the exams in place of the students, serve as a “proctor” who would work with the students during the test, or review and correct the answers once the students had left, thereby ensuring a desired, agreed-upon score. This proctor would frequently work from handwriting samples and signature samples provided by the parents to imitate the students’ penmanship and avoid any detection. The principal fraudulent test-taker was Mark Riddell, a prep school administrator from Florida, who will be pleading guilty in court to counts of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering.

Singer’s plan worked for so long because he avoided instances where the scores might throw up red flags. If prior official testing had taken place, Riddell would work to keep the score gains only 30% higher than the baseline scores to avoid scrutiny. If he was working with multiple students in a room, he would ensure that the students’ answer patterns were different enough to avoid scrutiny from the testing entities. He would personally bubble in the student’s answers into the official answer sheets. Finally, the site administrators would submit the tampered tests to be graded by the testing entities. With a crooked proctor in place and a test administrator turning a blind eye, the system’s controls were utterly broken.

So, what can be done?

Singer revealed a fatal flaw in the process: the requirement of a trusted agent to administer accommodated tests. Singer was able to buy off the administrators with $10k per test and the proctor with another $10k, a payoff that dwarfs the pay a typical SAT/ACT proctor would ever receive by orders of magnitude. This fraud could certainly happen again.

One partial fix would be to migrate the tests from a paper to an online model of administration. Paper assessments, as a rule, are far less secure than digital assessments. Unscrupulous actors who want to change test outcomes have a much easier time with paper-based tests. In recent years, the scandal that rocked the Atlanta Public Schools, leading to the arrest of 35 educators who conspired to change answers on criterion referenced tests, exemplifies the lack of security of paper-based assessments. Since 1997, testing entities have been migrating to digital platforms to increase test security: the GRE moved online in 1997, GMAT and TOEFL in 1998, MCAT in 2007, Aspire and PARCC tests in 2014, and Smarter Balanced in 2015. The LSAT is going online in September 2019. Many state school systems have similarly moved their assessment platforms online.

It is inevitable that the SAT and ACT will likewise move to a digital format, which will effectively eliminate the possibility of a rogue proctor changing answers on a completed test. Eventually, the addition of a simple web-cam with basic software (like the kind offered by Proctortrack) will ensure that students are taking a test unaided, preventing the kind of co-test-taking that took place under the aegis of Singer and his team. At some point down the technological road, we may move to a model of biometric screening (i.e., the technology found in our iphones and used by CLEAR at airports all over the country) to verify student identity. A fingerprint/iris scan is far more reliable than a paper/plastic ID card. Test security is so important, and systems have to adapt to stay one step ahead of bad actors willing to break the rules for personal gain.

Stealing from their own children

As a certified counselor, educational psychologist, and human being, I am distressed above all else by the messages that the parents who perpetrated this fraud have given their children. I cringe when I read some of the conversations that took place between Singer and the parents, as they strategized to cheat the system and undermine any honest efforts the students may have been making in the process. In certain cases, the children were complicit and happy to have an unearned edge over their peers. In other cases, the children remained completely in the dark, and in a few cases, the parents even acted against the wishes of their children.

These parents are effectively stealing from their children, robbing them of both an opportunity for growth and a potential mastery experience that could have served them well in the future. The parents are communicating to their kids that they are simply not good enough and need to cheat. The parents’ insecurities often loom large in these discussions.

Singer has no qualms about deceiving the students, and even jokes about it:

“…it was so funny ’cause the kids will call me and say, “Maybe I should do that again. I did pretty well and if I took it again, I’ll do better even.” Right? And they just have no idea that they didn’t even get the score that they thought they got.”

Singer explains to one father how his daughter might respond to her forthcoming score gains:

At the end of it she’ll say to you, “Dad, it was so hard,”or “I’m so tired,” or whatever the typical reaction out of the kid. Then [the proctor] will finish the exam…And she will sign it and she’ll walk out of there and she will never know that this actually occurred. You will get your results back… And she’ll get her results and she’ll say, “Oh, my God, Dad, I got a 33!”

The student is receiving a false signal regarding the efficacy of her efforts and study strategies. This can only do harm when she will have to take future examinations and may anticipate similar score gains to magically appear. Rather than use the challenge or struggle as an opportunity for learning, for growth, for character building, the parent is getting his daughter ready to anticipate results without the corresponding effort. This is a set-up for failure.

In what may be the most disturbing conversation, a mother is navigating the act of deceiving her younger daughter after she already purchased fraudulent scores for her older daughter.

client: But [my younger daughter] is like actually studying to try and get a 34.

Singer: Got it. Got it.

client: So it would– it would actually be a great boost to her. And [my older daughter] came to me and she says, “You’re not going to tell [my sister], are you?” I was like, “No.” Weird– weird family dynamics, but every kid is different.

client: So [my daughter] has said to me, “I’m gonna get a 34 on this ACT,” or “I’m gonna keep taking it till I get a 34.” And I’m like, “[Daughter], what if you got like a 32 or a 33?” She’s like, “W– no. I would take it till I get a 34.” I don’t know if that’s true, but she’s … driving me nuts. But what I don’t want to happen is us to say– she gets a 33 and her go, “I’m gonna take it again.”

Singer: I gotcha. Oh, I totally get that.

client: I’m like– you know, I just want this one done. And I don’t know if she’s serious. Because she’s not scoring that well on these.

Singer: Right.

client: So I don’t know if she’s serious that she would take it again. I mean, I think a 34 might be a little high. But at the same time, maybe it’s like, screw it, just give her the damn 40– 34, so that we don’t have to worry about her saying, “I’m taking it again.”

Singer: Totally agree.

client: Okay. And if she gets a 33 and tells me she’s gotta take it again, then you deal with her.

Singer: I know.

client: Then she’s your problem.

This scenario paints the picture of a hard-working student striving towards an academic goal, and a mother conspiring to take any actual accomplishment from her daughter because she’s tired of the striving. That college acceptance letter is all that matters to this mother, no matter what she has to do to get it, and it’s her daughter who suffers. There is a lot of growth potential in applying for college: you learn to work hard, manage setbacks, and sometimes fail honestly. Her daughter won’t get any of those experiences. This mother is actively working to shut down the very best things her daughter has to offer: her grit, her perseverance, and her tenacity.

The aftermath

The federal prosecution of this great fraud is now underway, as fifty individuals have been indicted in this conspiracy, and some have already pleaded guilty to their crimes. Careers have been ruined. Jail time will be served. Acceptances will be revoked. A class action lawsuit has been filed against the schools involved in the fraud (Georgetown, Stanford, UCLA, USD, USC, U. Texas, Wake Forest, and Yale).  

What is to become of the students involved in this scheme?

The colleges and universities involved will evaluate the students on a case-by-case basis. Some students will lose all of their credits and need to start fresh at new colleges, while others will be allowed to complete their degrees. Whether they willingly participated in the fraud or not, many of these students will carry the stigma of their involvement for years and years to come.

There will be ripple effects of this scandal in many areas: the potential regulation of independent educational consultants, changes to testing accommodations, investigations into athletic recruiting practices, the need to verify the identity of online course takers. Singer found so many loopholes and ways to deceive, and all of them must be remedied. What’s more, the scandal has opened up an enormous conversation about wealth, privilege, access and the obligations of colleges and universities to serve their own needs or the larger societal good.  

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