Sunday, December 9, 2012

SAT & ACT Security Policies & What They Mean To You

Starting in 2013 America's two college entrance exams, the SAT and the ACT will be drastically tightening their security procedures.  They seem to be motivated by the general fetish for increased security in America and also by some recent "scandals", but the result will be a significantly different test-taking experience for millions of college-bound high schoolers, and the imposition of not a few obstacles that will make the test an even more arduous experience for students, test-center proctors, and parents.   The following is a discussion of the new policies and what they mean to you.

Background: The SAT and the ACT are the two standardized tests that college-bound high schoolers take in America.  While an increasing number of colleges and universities are becoming "test-optional", the vast majority of colleges require one or both of these tests for admissions and/or scholarship consideration.  As a result, LOTS of students take these tests; almost 3 million took the SAT and over 1.6 million took the ACT last year. The companies that administer the tests (ACT and the College Board) are non-profit entities but that doesn't mean that they don't make money; in 2011, the chief executives of the two organizations each made over $1 million in salaries.   The College Board and ACT take their role as "official-unofficial" gate-keepers to college admissions very seriously, and anything that would jeopardize that status (thus reducing the number of tests administered and lowering revenue) is matter of the highest priority to these companies.  

In the autumn of 2011, prosecutors in Great Neck, Long Island charged a score of teens for paying others (or accepting payment) to take standardized tests.  Morally weak kids who felt great pressure about the college application process met up with others who combined a skill at making fake I.D's with standardized test-taking chops and the result was a number of very suspicious test results. The College Board and ACT have always been vigilant when it comes to testing irregularities; the New York Times reports, "[a]ccording to the Educational Testing Service (E.T.S.), which administers the exam for the College Board, about 3,000 scores are canceled each year because of suspected cheating, 150 involving impersonation."  

All of that is about to change. Nassau County D.A. Kathleen Rice believes that prospective test cheaters should know that [t]hey will be caught, and they will be held accountable,” she said. “The old system did not ensure that.”  But the new one makes it much more likely that dishonest behavior will be  recognized and punished.  

The New Policies: To prevent cheating by impersonators using false-I.D., both the ACT and the SAT will require students to submit a "head shot" photo when they register for the test online.  The picture needs to be recent and when test-takers enter a test center they will be compared not just to the photo I.D. card which has been required for years, but also to the picture used when registering. Photo I.D.'s will also be checked more often--both images will have to be examined when re-entering the room following breaks and upon collection of the answer sheets.  How much time this will add to tests already approaching four hours long is hard to predict.  And since students are not allowed to bring telephones into test centers, parents may spend more time idling in school parking lots waiting for their (by then starving for lunch!) kids to come out of the building.  

Both tests will now require students to list their high school when registering--in fact, registrations will not be accepted without listing a high school.  The reason for this is that scores will automatically be sent to the schools, with the student's registration photo attached to the results.  This will be convenient for college counselors (previously schools only learned the results of the tests if students chose to share them) but it also puts guidance offices in the position of being the last defense against cheating; if the picture is not of the student, schools will notify E.T.S. or ACT, and presumably will also be able to penalize the student for violating any applicable school honesty rules. 

One final twist on the registration photo issue is that colleges receiving student SAT scores will now be able to have access to the database containing the registration pictures.  I wonder how tempted the colleges will be to take a look at their applicants' photos?  I'm not too concerned that they will use the snapshots to weed out unattractive students, but is it possible that they will make racial or ethnic determinations based on these pictures?  Some students purposely choose to leave the demographic questions on college applications blank, either because they don't want to answer, or because they don't know how to.  And this might become more of an issue, depending on the Supreme Court.  Later this term the Justices will rule on Fisher v. University of Texas, which challenges University of Texas' policy of taking race into consideration as part of a "holistic" admissions process.  If the Court says that Texas' policy is unconstitutional, might admissions representatives use the SAT pictures as a way of determining a students' race even if that information is not otherwise divulged?

Speaking of issues of identity, both tests now require students to submit their gender during registration.  I suppose that this is to prevent any problems with people whose names are confusing, but it seems kind of unfair to transgender teens.  Estimates are that one in 10,000 teens have serious gender issues, which could mean that annually about 450 people registering for the tests may be reluctant to identify as "male" or "female".  Whether this deters them from taking the test or causes any kind of distraction will be difficult if not impossible to track, but  to me it is significant enough that it is worth discussion. 

In addition to the photo I.D. requirements, students will no longer be able to change test centers or show up hoping to take the test at the last minute.  Test booklets will be sent for the students who registered in advance.  This will put a greater premium on awareness of registration deadlines and students will need to be prepared to travel to an unfamiliar location to take the exam.  For highly organized students in college-prep programs this should not be a problem, but for the less well-prepared kids this might be a further obstacle keeping them from taking the test enough times to generate their best "superscore"

But will any of this work?: It is estimated that less than one-tenth of one percent of test takers engage in the kind of dishonest behavior that went on in the Long Island cases.  Much more common (though still exceedingly rare) is cheating off of the egghead at a neighboring desk, or working without authorization on other sections of the test at improper times.   Sometimes students in earlier timezones will communicate with those further west to share inside information, which is virtually impossible to prevent.  The SAT has employed sophisticated algorithms to compare student's scores with those of test-takers in nearby seats, and will flag what it considers "suspicious" scores.  This is a very stressful situation for the students who are indirectly accused of cheating, and is certainly not foolproof. 

ETS claims to spend 10% of their annual revenue (over $20 million) on security, even though the percentage of would-be cheaters is so low.  Jon Erickson of ACT has said that vigilance is required "because millions of students and thousands of colleges, universities and scholarship programs rely on the integrity of [standardized test] scores to help make important life decisions."  I agree that the "integrity" of standardized test scores is important.  The point of these tests is that they are something that enables "fair" comparison between students with different family, educational and regional backgrounds.  While this is probably not what happens in practice, the theory is a good one.  But rather than making the test even more difficult to register for and administer, I would hope that colleges would simply recognize that an infinitesimally small number of tests may not be accurate due to dishonesty and that it is impossible to know which tests these are.   Then they could weigh standardized tests slightly less when making admissions decisions.   But so long as people are getting paid large salaries to devise standardized tests it is reasonable to assume that they will keep tweaking the process to make it more, rather than less cumbersome. 

As a history teacher, it always impresses me to see how quickly people's expectations can change.  When, for instance, I tell students that less than a dozen years ago it was possible to board an airplane without taking your shoes off, while carrying unlimited amounts of liquid and box cutters in your carry-on luggage they act like I am recounting a weird dream.   I wonder how long it will be before students find it incredible to believe that there was a time when someone could just show up at a standardized test center on the day of the exam?  At this rate, probably not long at all. 

Related Resources:  Feel free to read the ACT Press Release and the SAT Press Release (both in Portable Document Format) announcing their new security procedures.