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IDEAS

Giving remote SAT and ACT exams is a bad idea

Given the history of cheating on standardized tests, including last year’s Varsity Blues scandal, it’s hard to believe testing companies can create foolproof security and equity with at-home tests.

YANA PASKOVA/NYT

A camera on a student’s home computer or tablet will share video with a remote proctor to prevent cheating on the SAT or ACT. Students with unreliable or no Internet access may get free devices that act as mobile hotspots. No computer? No worries. The College Board, which administers the SAT, will help get the student one.

Officials from The College Board and the ACT announced in mid-April that this fall, they will offer at-home online college entrance tests — remote replicas of the standard three-hour exams — though The College Board provided a caveat. It will proceed only if schools remain closed due to the pandemic. The ACT plans to offer at-home tests regardless.

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But given the history of cheating on standardized tests, including last year’s Varsity Blues scandal, and America’s digital divide, it’s hard to believe testing companies can create foolproof security and equity with at-home tests. The College Board has been looking at this month’s administration of the first-ever at-home Advanced Placement exams as a trial balloon, and already, there have been technical glitches and allegations of cheating.

Trevor Packer, who leads The College Board’s AP program, announced in a series of tweets that the board had just canceled the AP exam registrations “of a ring of students who were developing plans to cheat, and we’re currently investigating others.” Packer also tweeted that while 98 percent of the 50,000 students taking one of the AP Physics exams had no problem submitting answers, 2 percent had issues. By the end of the first week of remote AP exam testing, the College Board reported that less than 1 percent of students had issues, and they could retake the test next month, a move that has triggered a class action suit by some of the affected students against the College Board.

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The conclusion should be clear: Shelve the idea of remote at-home tests.

“Can we reliably say that student X achieved that score without any help, without any access to materials that would help cheating?” said David Hawkins, executive director of the National Association of College Admission Counseling. “How can we be sure that these scores would reflect the students and what these students would do under normal circumstances?”

There’s little confidence in test security as it is. “Right now some high-$$ #college admissions ‘coach’ is rubbing their hands together over how easy it’ll be to game a take-at-home SAT,” tweeted Carlo Salerno, vice president for research at CampusLogic, a company that helps colleges simplify the financial aid process for students.

Students from wealthier families, who typically hire test prep tutors, already score hundreds of points higher on the SAT than peers from the poorest families. Add in an at-home, online test and students from low-income families and Black and Latino teens lose again because those groups have the least access to reliable Internet connections and computers, based on a 2018 Pew Research Center survey.

There are inequities, too, in living spaces. Imagine trying to take a three-hour college entrance exam in a shared bedroom or a small apartment inhabited by parents and younger siblings; I’ve interviewed plenty of teens who can’t even study at home.

“The most obvious issue is students with disabilities, students with no Internet at home, students with low bandwidth, students who may need to take it with siblings, a grandmother, or a dog that needs attention,” says Jon Boeckenstedt, Oregon State University’s vice provost of enrollment management.

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The ACT will require students to use a desktop computer, a laptop, or a Chromebook, will not permit the use of phones or tablets, and the device must have a camera, spokesman Ed Colby told me via email. Asked how to provide equitable testing environments, Colby said the ACT was exploring what to do, including offering “alternative in-person delivery methods to mitigate equity challenges.”

The College Board, which is administering at-home Advanced Placement exams through May 22 and makeup exams in early June, has purchased Chromebooks, tablets, and mobile hotspot devices to distribute to students who need them for at-home AP exams and will look for partners to provide the same for SAT-takers. Students can take AP exams on a mobile phone, but officials have not yet decided what devices will be approved for an at-home SAT, said Priscilla Rodriguez, the vice president of college readiness assessments at The College Board.

Rodriguez said The College Board is concerned, too, about equitable testing spaces, and could administer the test in alternate locations. “It could be libraries if they’re starting to reopen. It may be other venues willing to open their doors to give them their quiet place,” she said.

But many of us are afraid to even go to the grocery at the moment. Would leaving home cause more stress for the test-taker? More than 60 colleges, aware that roughly 1 million high school juniors could not take the SAT for the first time this spring, have gone test-optional for fall 2021 admissions.

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Dartmouth College is still requiring test scores, but Lee Coffin, the admissions dean, is wary about at-home tests. “If you can’t allow all of your applicants to take something in common, how can you require it?” he wondered.

Cornell University, the only Ivy League school so far to go test-optional, expressed consternation about at-home SATs and ACTs in its announcement about not requiring the tests for incoming Fall 2021 students, saying at-home testing could not yet be validated as an indicator of college success.

Colleges themselves must step up if they want to stop at-home tests from creating yet another inequity. If they refuse to accept at-home test results as valid, the problem is solved.

Linda K. Wertheimer, a former Globe education editor, is the author of “Faith Ed: Teaching about Religion in an Age of Intolerance.”