The College Board's Online SAT

The College Board's Online SAT

This past week, the College Board (a US nonprofit responsible for developing and administering the SAT Online) released the statement we all knew was coming: If schools are not back in session by the Fall, then SATs would be taken online from students' homes.

Besides for the obvious challenges that this will present many students who a) don't have their own computer, b) don't have reliable access to internet at home, or c) have a home in which they do not have a private or quiet room, among a litany of other challenges, the potential for cheating is simply rampant. No reasonable admissions officer is going to trust these results.

The online SAT will sadly be a collossal waste of everyone's time and money. I feel bad for the poor students who are going to sacrifice weeks of their time this summer preparing to take the SAT when ultimately it won't matter for them.

For those of you reading this note, you already know that I'm an optimist. I root for people's better angels. Maybe too much. When I applied to college I didn't even know admissions consulting was a thing. I certainly couldn't have imagined that someone could help ghostwrite your essay under the pretense of heavy editing. The thought of parents cheating their kids' way into school was foreign, to say the least.

Last year, I think many other people had the same reaction that I did to 'Operation Varsity Blues,' which was exposed just over a year ago to date. It brought to light the absurd direct cheating that the rich and famous would go to to help their children get into a good college. I must have just been too trusting and naive to see it before. But in this new environment of remote standardized testing, Is it too difficult to imagine parents who don't have a quarter of a million dollars seeing this as their 'golden ticket' to helping their kids increase their chances of getting into a dream school? The potential of cheating on the new online SAT just raises so many questions. Many of them are hopefully unfounded. But all it takes is a few bad actors to poison the well for everyone.

During an online briefing about the newly-proposed online SAT last week, Jeremy Singer, who is the president of the College Board, noted that the technology the College Board will use has been under development for five years. The key method the College Board uses to ensure no cheating exists?

Remote proctoring!

Before we get on to exploring the challenges with remote proctoring, even in a best case scenario, it may be worth sharing how unlikely it is that the technology is even remotely where the College Board says it is. Since the financials of the College Board are public (due to its nonprofit status), I did a little homework and dug up the approximate amount of money they've invested in IT over the last five years. While the exact amount cannot be certain, after removing 'management costs' of IT projects to just account for what is expected to be direct IT production costs, the College Board has invested a whopping less than 2% of its revenues on IT over the last five years. Compare this to 15% of its revenues on offshore investments. It's pretty clear to see where the priorities lie, eh?

Now, it's very possible that the generous 30MM USD contract the College Board awarded to Pearson Education for 'Testing Services' included the production of digital tests and remote proctoring, but I doubt it. Back in 2003 there was a press release that Pearson would support the College Board in scoring all of their answer sheets and essays (this is about the time when the SAT changed formats). Looking back over historical financials, the contract to Pearson hasn't jumped up that much year after year, so it's probably reasonable to assume that the commercial relationship is largely unchanged, though Pearson is just processing more tests. By the way, is that shocking to no one else that the College Board doesn't even score its own exams? Here I was thinking they actually graded their own tests.

Apparently not!

Digging deeper, it seems more likely that the College Board has outsourced all of this IT work to a Texas-based firm, Comsys IT, which since 2010 has been a subsidiary of Manpower Group. Given the histories of payments to them that have only started more recently, but have grown more quickly, this might suggest that they are the ones driving this IT remote proctoring project. Even then, 2% of revenues being paid to an external contractor should not strike much confidence that this product is a best-in-class remote proctoring software to roll out across unstable internet and inconsistent computing platforms to students all over the world for something as life-changing as college admissions.

But let's assume for a moment that remote proctoring is indeed best-in-class and this no-name IT subsidiary of a staffing and recruiting firm is somehow creating tech that rivals Google and Microsoft in terms of security. After all, as Singer describes it, the field has been around for a while: “Remote proctoring is not a new field, and the sophistication continues to evolve... We feel that now it’s a point where the level of sophistication… could ensure the integrity and security of administration.”

Here's how it works, to paraphrase Singer: The student sits down in front of their computer, at home, and the software locks down every other application and browser outside the testing window. The camera and microphone on the computer are turned on, and are able to detect movements in the room, to make sure that no parent or sibling is coming in to offer assistance on exam questions. Then the student proceeds with the assessment. This all would happen, Singer adds, after each student has completed a pretest under the same conditions, using the same software, and with a confirmed account, allowing students to reach out to staff and resolve any technical issues that arise.

I'm not a techie, but perhaps a few questions:

  • What if the internet connection shuts off in the middle of the test?
  • What if another person enters the room accidentally? Is the test null and void? Or will someone review each video frame by frame to ensure there really was no cheating? Since the video review must be subjective, is the test now standardized?
  • What if the only computer that the student has access to is in a public place? Will their entire test video and audio be reviewed, as above?
  • What if the computer doesn't have a video camera?
  • What if the computer doesn't have a microphone?
  • If the video camera or microphone aren't working or stop working, will the student need to get a new computer?
  • What if parents set up a video camera hidden in the room pointed at the screen so someone in the next room could see all of the questions and relay it to the child on another device? (say, a mobile phone lying next to the computer out of sight of the camera!)
  • What if someone who looks like the child takes the test in their place? (as has already been known to happen with students switching/changing IDs before taking the test)
  • Will each student have their video matched up against their headshot/ID photo?
  • What if the headshot/ID photo is planned in advance to be the person who is taking the test in lieu of the original student?

This is going to be an absolute mess.

I'm not claiming to have all of the answers to the questions above. Nor do I think they are very easy answers to nail down. I think remote standardized tests is a remarkably hard problem to solve. The person or company who solves all of those issues probably deserves a nation-wide monopoly on the testing market! This is why I believe, and it will be unsurprising to you, dear reader, that the current SAT is simply going the way of the dodo bird.

Schools will likely not count it this year. If a kid has a 1550 - 1600 or some phenomenal score, schools will make note of it. Otherwise, they're going to toss it in the rubbish bin due to the extenuating circumstances of it. The very idea of a standardized test being just that, standardized, when now students will take the test from different armchairs with different internet speeds with different computers with different home environments is simply fatuous.

Just in the last few weeks, schools like Colgate, Vassar, Harvard, Tufts, Boston University, and the UC school system have announced they won't consider test scores this application cycle. Particularly noteworthy is the decision made by the UC system, which is the US's largest. The Board of Regents pushed forward their decision that was originally due in May to March and made the formal announcement on April 1st. Meanwhile, more conservative schools, like Cornell and Dartmouth, seem to be holding on to the older policies. This will likely change once the Boards realize how the school will be lampooned for not valuing equity of applicants. I give them until September to change their mind.

Once schools go through the process of not counting the SAT, they'll either realize a) how critical it actually is (in which case I'll be massively historically wrong and ya'll can laugh in my direction), or b) how unimportant it really is to the admissions process.

As I've written before - some of the top schools will keep a standardized test because it allows them to filter quickly. 'Below XYZ cut-off point? Sorry, not going to be a good fit.' But the majority of schools, particularly given the enrollment and budgetary challenges they already are and will face on an unprecedented level due to the coronavirus, are looking for students to jump through fewer hoops to apply, not more.

Admissions for the elite schools will be a race to the bottom to increase diversity of applicants so they can maintain the moral high ground.

Admissions for the less elite will become a race to the bottom to increase overall applicants. The liberal arts colleges stuck in the middle will be just that, stuck.

They'll need to roll with the tide.

Standardized tests, when not standardized, just don't fit the purpose they were made for anymore.