A new stress test for college admissions

The uncovering of a massive college admissions scandal has put a renewed focus on standardized tests like the ACT. But will it change the high-stakes game?


By Katharine Carlon

A shocking college cheating scandal that’s still making headlines could speed the trend of colleges and universities de-emphasizing admissions testing, with some questioning whether it heralds the end of a college-bound rite of passage – one that could have implications for a major Corridor employer.

“Is the College Cheating Scandal the ‘Final Straw’ for Standardized Tests?” the New York Times asked on March 14 of the test-gaming scheme that called the credibility of college testing into question. The Washington Post followed up days later with a headline asking, “Is it finally time to get rid of the SAT and ACT college admissions tests?”

The largest college admissions cheating and bribery scandal in U.S. history ensnared 50 people, including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, in an illegal scheme to get students into elite universities, such as Stanford, the University of Southern California, Yale and Georgetown. In some cases, impersonators took ACT or SAT exams, while in others, insiders at test sites were paid to change answers or fill in missing responses. Proctors and test site personnel were bribed to ignore illegal acts, and parents made fake disability claims to gain extra test taking time.

Experts, including critics of standardized exams, say the high-stakes tests aren’t going away any time soon. Nor is the scandal likely to significantly hurt the bottom lines of the College Board, administrator of the SAT, or Iowa City-based ACT, both of which have been working to diversify their offerings in the past few years.

However, the black eye comes as a growing number of institutions are going “test optional” to ensure their doors are open to a more diverse pool of potential students. The tests, traditionally a key consideration for college admissions officials, were taken by a record 4 million students in 2018. Now opinion leaders like the Times are suggesting the scandal could become “a watershed moment for the rejection of standardized tests at every level of the education system – but particularly in college admissions.”

The nonprofit ACT, which employs more than 1,000 people at its Iowa City campus, declined to comment “while there is an ongoing investigation,” according to media communications strategist Tarah DeSousa, who initially referred to a corporate statement calling the cheating scheme the work of a “few bad actors.”

In that initial statement, ACT said it was committed to ensuring students have equal opportunity to demonstrate what they’ve learned in school “through their hard work,” adding that no student should have an unfair advantage.

The organization further pledged to work alongside law enforcement, and indeed, according to the 204-page federal indictment stemming from the “Operation Varsity Blues” investigation, ACT helped build the government’s case in at least one instance. After twice denying one family’s request for extra test-taking time, ACT – at the request of investigators – ultimately allowed the concession in November 2018.

In a second statement issued March 20, ACT confirmed it had been “instrumental in law enforcement’s efforts to collect additional, important evidence in this case,” adding that while it was limited in what it could disclose about its participation, that assistance was ongoing.

ACT also stated it is assisting colleges and universities in their own internal investigations, and outlined its extensive test security program, which recently brought down a test fraud scheme in Thailand. It said it was recommitted to upholding the integrity of the test roughly 3,000 colleges, universities and scholarship agencies rely on to make decisions.

“It’s a black mark” on college testing, conceded Kelly Finn, founder and CEO of Cedar Rapids-based test preparation service Finn Prep, who called the scandal a “wake-up call” and has dealt with the fallout from parents outraged by the ease with which the system was gamed ever since.

“But ACT will certainly recover,” she continued. “They’ll put systems in place to maintain the test’s integrity and ultimately, this will be a blip on the screen for ACT.”

Ms. Finn said she was aware of the growing test-optional movement and the “bad taste” standardized testing has left in many mouths.

“But I think it’s years before these tests go away,” she said, adding that tests like the ACT remain the best way to change students’ lives, giving some an opportunity to get into selective institutions, and for a few, a shot at a full-ride scholarship. “There are good students who have high GPAs, but don’t score well … changing that is a long-term project.”

“Without an objective measure like the SAT, gaming the system to gain access to higher ed through wealth and connections would be much more common,” the College Board said in a statement.

Going ‘test-optional’

Although admissions testing is in no danger of disappearing, the scandal could portend long-term change ahead.

“Every 10 days to two weeks, another university goes test-optional,” said Robert Schaeffer, public education director for FairTest, a Massachusetts-based organization leading the national movement for test-optional admissions. “The pressure for social change is cumulative and, with this scandal, we only expect the pace to accelerate.”

So far, more than 1,000 four-year colleges and universities, including half of U.S. News’ “Top 100” liberal arts colleges, have abandoned requiring ACT or SAT tests. The list includes big name schools like DePaul, Wake Forest and Creighton, but No. 3 academically-ranked University of Chicago’s decision last summer to offer a non-test reliant pathway to admission gave the movement unprecedented heft.

The Chronicle of Higher Education named going test-optional its top trend for 2019, reporting that several other highly elite institutions were considering new testing policies this year in the wake of U Chicago’s decision.

“U Chicago was the big one,” Mr. Schaeffer said. “And when you see a number of wealthy families gaming the system, it just adds to the questions about the utility and validity of standardized testing. I think we’ve reached a critical mass of test-optional schools, and college admissions officers are talking to their peers at similar universities.”

Six Iowa colleges and universities, including Cornell College in Mount Vernon and Drake in Des Moines, have de-emphasized the tests in recent years.

Cornell launched its test-optional admissions policy in 2015 to broaden the pool of students it attracted, citing a University of California at Berkley study finding that high school GPA is the strongest predictor of student success. Cornell’s three admissions options now include the Common Application, a Cornell-specific application that requires an essay and standardized test scores, or an alternative application that asks students to submit a portfolio of work and complete two short-answer essay questions with no test scores required.

“We want strong students from a broad range of backgrounds – regardless of their standardized scores – to know that we’re interested in them and that they may be a good fit here,” Cornell President Jonathan Brand said at the time.

Drake, which has billed its policy as “text-flexible,” allows students with GPAs of 3.0 or higher to fulfill application requirements with an interview, either in person or via Skype or FaceTime, in lieu of test scores. Drake Director of Communications Jarad Bernstein said the policy is meant as a “side door” for students who feel standardized test scores don’t reflect their abilities, such as those who might hail from rural areas without access to test prep resources or schools in which standardized testing was not emphasized.

Still, Mr. Bernstein hastened to add that Drake has not lost faith in the predictive ability of college testing.

“It has nothing to do with our view of the integrity of the ACT or the SAT, and, in fact, the large majority of our applicants do submit test scores,” he said. “We still feel confident the tests are an effective tool to evaluate a student’s chances of success and there’s a lot of research behind that.”

Josh Lehman is senior communications director for the Iowa Board of Regents, which sets admissions standards – known as the Regent Admissions Index (RAI) – for the University of Iowa, Iowa State and the University of Northern Iowa. He said he was not aware of a movement for the state’s universities to hop on the test-optional train.

“The board hasn’t had discussions about moving away from the use of standardized test scores in admissions,” Mr. Lehman said in an email, adding the RAI assesses “a combination of factors that strongly predict success in college,” including ACT or SAT scores, completion of a minimum number of required high school courses and a student’s cumulative high school GPA.

ACT’s changing focus

Perhaps in acknowledgment of the shifting landscape, ACT has been actively transforming itself into what it calls a “learning, measurement and navigation organization.”

The company, which reported revenue of more than $353 million and nearly $445 million in net assets in 2017, has spent tens of millions over the past few years investing in edtech, data analytics and K-12 products to broaden the scope and range of its mission.

That shift began shortly after CEO Marten Roorda took the helm with the 2016 acquisition of OpenEd, a K-12 educational resource provider, and continued in 2017 with a $10.5 million investment in New Markets Venture Partners, an investment firm focusing on education companies. Last year, ACT made a $7.5 million investment in adaptive learning company Smart Sparrow, and acquired Knovation Inc., a leading curator of K-12 open educational resources, as well as the National Research Center for College and University Admissions (NRCCUA), an educational data science and research organization.

In the workforce arena, the nonprofit has also launched ACT Stack, a work-readiness solution designed to combine with other assessment and credentialing programs including ACT WorkKeys and ACT Tessera Workforce – described by the company as “the world’s most advanced programming assessment.”

“My biggest competitor isn’t the College Board anymore,” Mr. Roorda told the Chronicle of Higher Education in an interview last month, adding that the ACT test, which once accounted for two-thirds of the company’s revenue, “is becoming a minority.”

The shift at ACT hasn’t come without some growing pains. The organization laid off 80 employees shortly after Mr. Roorda’s arrival, citing a shift in the organization’s strategic vision, and another 100 in a 2018 “organizational realignment.”

Mr. Schaeffer said those moves are unsurprising, given the surge in schools no longer requiring admissions testing and a reduction in the overall number of high school graduates, thanks to what he called “the post-baby boom echo boom.” Those factors, in tandem with a national scandal like Varsity Blues, mean the big business of college testing will have to continue evolving to adapt to changing realities.

“The testing market is big business and getting bigger,” he said. “But I think both major admissions companies are responding to big changes in their markets.”

With few statistics available and a fractured playing field that involves multiple players, many of whom are not required to publish data, it’s nearly impossible to assess the value of the U.S. standardized testing market, much less the college segment of that market. The National Board of Educational Testing and Public Policy at Boston College estimated it at as much as $700 million several years ago.

Adding in the global test prep market, which includes tutoring, online and mobile learning programs and benchmark testing, research firm Technavio estimated the value at $24.6 billion worldwide in 2016, with the bulk of that – 31.5 percent – coming from the university exam share of the market. While that includes prep for the SAT and ACT, it also includes AP subject matter exams, certification tests like the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) and others.

“I think those numbers are crap,” Mr. Schaeffer said. “That dollar figure does not exist. I’ve worked with teams of investigative reporters from 60 Minutes and the New York Times, and we can’t nail that down, although we’d like to.”

Suffice it to say, he added, “it’s a huge market.”   CBJ

This article first appeared in the April 1, 2019 edition of the CBJ.