Monday, November 28, 2011

More Incompetence in SAT-Land, But This One's Not All on Them

As an educator at the post-secondary level, I have deeply ambivalent feelings about standardized testing. The teach-to-the-test mentality engendered by high-stakes exams like the fetishistic stupidity propagated in my adopted state of Texas, for example, is as antithetical to real education as it is possible to be. There also are, or at least have been, serious concerns about cultural bias. Still, I won’t pretend that I don’t look pretty carefully at ACT and SAT scores when evaluating prospective students for admission into our program or scholarships.

This is a function of two things. First, there is the wide disparity between schools and their populations—being at the top of a weak class might be better or worse than being in the middle of a strong one. It’s useful to have some means of comparing such students.

Second, most recommendations written by high school teachers and administrators are utterly useless. I do understand that writing an effective, accurate recommendation takes time; I’ve written a fair number of them, after all. But in my time as coordinator of Theatre Day (that’s our tri-annual on-campus recruitment event) I’ve read recs that are a single sentence long, that are incoherent and/or ungrammatical, that praise a student in the bottom 20% of her class for excelling in the classroom (without any explanation why the little darling consistently gets C’s and D’s, including in that teacher’s classes), that talk more about the student’s parents than about him. One teacher in Dallas obviously has a template singing the praises of some generic student; she just swaps out one student name for another and sends it along. (We once had two students at the same Theatre Day with recs from her. The letters were identical except for the students’ names and the gender-specific pronouns.)

Standardized test scores aren’t the only criterion by which to measure a student’s academic skills, of course. Grades (and class rank relative to class size) count a lot; if we happen to get a well-crafted, individualized, recommendation that actually gives us insight into the student, that’s incredibly helpful. The résumé counts: both how it’s structured and what it contains. If you want to be a designer and your layout is cluttered, unimaginative, and unattractive, you’ve got some work to do. If you want to be an actor, your teacher can talk about how wonderful you are all she wants, but if you’ve never played anything but Chorus in a musical or Third Spear-Carrier from the Left, she’s really not all that impressed with your work.

Nor do minor differences in scores matter. A 550 and a 560 in Critical Reading are, for our purposes, identical. A 440 and a 650 aren’t. If you’re smart and can really handle the language, it doesn’t matter if your acting skills are marginal: a). you’re teachable and b). there are plenty of non-acting jobs in theatre (mine, for instance). On the other hand, you may audition well with carefully-chosen pieces, but if we’re not reasonably certain you can handle the work of a freshman-level Play Analysis course, we’re not going to invest our limited scholarship money on you.

Good scores matter, in other words. And whereas a fair number of high school seniors don’t seem to comprehend much else, they do get that much. All of which means there’s a lot of pressure to perform well. For those with more money than brains or morality, that means an increased temptation to cheat: specifically, to hire a similarly immoral, but intelligent, surrogate to take the test in your stead. And that is what happened, repeatedly, in an upscale suburban area of Long Island over at least a three-year period.

The New York Times reports that some 20 people have been arrested over the past two months for being at one or the other end of such transactions: either paying someone to take the exam or accepting payment to impersonate someone else in order to take the test. The group faces felony charges of scheming to defraud, as well as misdemeanor charges of falsifying business records and criminal impersonation.

The victims here are of two kinds: the middling but honest students whose chances of getting entrance to the university of their choice or receive a scholarship to do so have been compromised by a competition that cheats, and (now) every honest and gifted kid in the area, whose own good scores, the product of native intelligence and hard work, are now (alas, quite reasonably) viewed as suspect.

There are two problems here. One is that the College Board/Educational Testing Service folks (who administer the SAT), in particular, have been more than somewhat less than diligent in preventing or prosecuting cheating. An earlier NYT article quotes Bernard Kaplan, principal of Great Neck North High School, lambasting the administrators of the SAT: “The procedures E.T.S. uses to give the test are grossly inadequate in terms of security. Furthermore, E.T.S.’s response when the inevitable cheating occurs is grossly inadequate. Very simply, E.T.S. has made it very easy to cheat, very difficult to get caught.” Mr. Kaplan adds:
It is ridiculously easy to take the test for someone else. That’s why when E.T.S. says this kind of impersonation is a rare occurrence, you just have to laugh. How would they know? All they can say is they are unaware of a large number of impersonations. I’m sure, that’s true. They are most assuredly unaware.
OK, you know how this blog consistently reams high school principals and school superintendents? Credit where it’s due: Mr. Kaplan seems to be the exception that proves the rule. It was his initial investigation that led to the arrests: “I think it’s [cheating] widespread across the country,” he said Tuesday. “We were the school that stood up to it.” And to say that the security has been lax with respect to ensuring that test-takers are who they claim to be is sort of like saying that NBA power forwards tend to be large men. [Side note: sign off on the damned agreement and play ball!]

After all, Samuel Eshaghoff is accused of impersonating six different students, including a girl to take the SAT for them at $3500 a pop, earning scores up to the 97th percentile. (I guess it wouldn’t have been worth it for me to hire him, as I did better than that on my own.) And, write the Times’s Jenny Anderson and Winnie Hu, “Currently, if a score is suspect, E.T.S. investigates. If cheating is uncovered, the score is canceled and the student is permitted to get a refund and take the test again. Neither the student’s high school nor any college is notified.” Seriously? No penalty at all?

Here’s the College Board’s attitude:
You got sick and couldn’t make the test? Sorry, no refund. Need to change the date of your test more than two weeks in advance? Well, OK, but it’ll cost you $25. Oh, you’re an immoral, self-entitled little weasel who thinks rules are for other people? Sorry, sir/madam, we thought you might be an honest kid with a legitimate excuse. Of course you can have a refund. Of course we won’t notify anyone who might be interested in whether you’ve already proven that you have no intention of actually learning anything at their academic institution. Would you like us to give you the names of a few really smart, dishonest people whom we’re far too stupid to catch if they impersonate you next time?
Not being a lawyer, I don’t know whether this qualifies as “criminal negligence” according to our legal system. But in a just universe, the cretinous yahoos at the CB/ETS who decided on this policy would lose their jobs, have “unethical moron” branded into their foreheads, and be publicly pilloried. Preferably literally.

Still, the fact that everyone in the ETS hierarchy seems to be terminally incompetent does not absolve the little urchins from taking responsibility for their actions. The recent economic meltdown may have been facilitated by de-regulation, but it was caused by specific immoral, greedy wheeler-dealers. Whether what these students did was criminal may be up for debate (I can’t imagine that there’s a legitimate legal argument there, but Dickens’s Mr. Bumble is, alas, too often correct in his assertion that “the law is an ass”). If not, every college that admitted one of these lying little bastards based on false information should immediately expel those students and sue the ETS. Actually, they should do that, anyway.

The defendants’ lawyers are paid to defend their clients, and they should do so as vigorously as they can. They are not, however, entitled to spew forth such rubbish as this from Gerald McCloskey: “My feeling is that it should be handled administratively by the College Board and the school board, not criminally, especially when the county is experiencing budget issues and resources are limited to begin with.” How noble of him to be so concerned with the county’s fiscal restraints. Translation: “My client is guilty as sin. Obfuscate!” Or Melvin Roth: “I think this is overkill for this kind of thing.” Yes, stealing is only stealing when someone other than Mr. Roth’s client does it. These guys are why there are lawyer jokes.

I strongly suspect that the ETS’s estimate of perhaps 150 cases of cheating a year is off by a factor of 100 or so. So it’s up to people like me to make sure no one gets a college diploma without earning one. Time to go to work…

1 comment:

Eli said...

I think the weaselly, "we'll let you re-take it with no penalty" policy is sadly practical. ACT has, I think, the same approach, primarily because they are trying to minimize the risk of lawsuits and the resulting drain on profits (even if successful). A friend was legal counsel for ACT with the job of notifying suspected cheaters and investigating cases, and she said that even then, they would only follow up on the cases with an extremely high probability of guilt, with a lot of very likely cases allowed to slide. Innocent until proven guilty, or rather very easy to prove guilty . . .