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The Washington Post
January 3, 1993
Outlook, Page C1
Standardized Mess
Students Know It's Easy to Cheat on the SATs
By Stewart Ugelow

Amid the publicity surrounding the start of Larry Adler’s sentence on perjury charges — he’ll finish his reduced 10-day jail term this week — it is easy to forget how close the former Winston Churchill High School student came to successfully cheating on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT).

Adler was not foiled by a test administrator noticing that the person taking the test was not the person pictured on Adler’s driver’s license. Nor was he done in by the Educational Testing Service’s analysis of his test scores for irregularities. Instead, Adler was thwarted by the one factor he should have had the most control over: himself.

If they had just kept the scheme to themselves, only Adler and co-conspirator Donald Farmer (who took the test for Adler) would have known how easy it was to bypass one of ETS’s most stringent security protocols. Instead, Adler revealed his plan to classmates, and one of them apparently alerted ETS. This tip, coupled with a question from a college admissions officer about a discrepancy between Adler’s test results and grades, ultimately led ETS to challenge his scores.

The lesson of how easy it could have been to cheat on the SAT has not been lost on college-bound and scholarship-seeking students, who know that the stakes are enormous — and they extend beyond the obvious influence on whether a student gets into a particular college. For student-athletes, NCAA rules require a minimum SAT score of 700 in order to play collegiate sports. For other students, there are millions of dollars in academic scholarships on the line as well.

To be sure, few find it necessary to craft elaborate ruses like Adler’s, but some area high school students say they have discovered how to take advantage of ETS security loopholes without getting caught. There are, in short, many ways to cheat without really trying.

In their last years of high school, students come in contact with four types of ETS examinations: the SAT; the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT), a scaled-down practice version of the SAT; the Achievements, which test mastery of specific subjects on a high school level; and the Advanced Placement (AP) exams, which test mastery of specific subjects on a college level.

One method of beating the system on SATs and PSATs is to confer during the break between the math and verbal sections. Then, test-takers can go to the bathroom or get something to eat. Often, anxious students will gather in the halls and compare answers. Although students are not permitted to work on an earlier section once time has been called, a single additional correct answer can result in a 20- to 30-point increase in a score. For many, the temptation proves too great.

"People go out into the halls during the break and talk about the answers," said Sidwell Friends School senior Peter Wallace. "They go back in, and when there is no proctor around, they make changes."

For the Achievement tests, the problem of comparing answers is even worse. The one-hour Achievements can be taken in a myriad of subjects, ranging from biology to modern Hebrew. During the testing period, students can take up to three tests in almost any order they choose. In between, there is also a break in which students may leave the test room.

Thus, it is possible for students to get answers to tests that they have yet to take.

"You could arrange with a friend . . . that if you were taking, say, two Achievements and you were going to screw up the math Achievement really badly, you could have your friend take his math Achievement first. Then, he could tell you about the problems," Sidwell senior Greg Humphreys said. "I have even heard of people writing down answer lists and trading during the break."

Probably the most common form of cheating is violating the time limits by quickly finishing sections where you’re strong and going back where you’re weak, says Sidwell senior Christian Hicks. Referring to the TSWE (Test of Standard Written English, one of six SAT sections), Hicks said, "Although I have never done it . . . you can complete the TSWE in 10 minutes and use the rest of the time to finish other sections. Nobody really cares about it, and it’s downright sensible to sacrifice your performance there and improve your performance on other parts of the test."

Some tactics are more innovative.

"I know one person who had one of those little electronic dictionaries and brought it into the test room," said Sidwell’s Wallace. "He must have hidden it in his coat."

Humphreys said, "On the physics AP, you are allowed to use any kind of calculator you want, including my calculator in which I can program every single physics formula, type pages of notes or type definitions of words. I can do whatever I want. The proctors are like ‘Now clear your calculator’s memory.’ What are they going to do, go around and check it?"

So it’s easy to cheat on the most important tests of high school? ETS Division Director for College Board Programs Irving Broudy says no. Existing security measures should prevent students from such methods of cheating, he said — if proctors enforce ETS rules.

"Two million students take the SAT every year. Less than two in a thousand cases are ever questioned in any way," Broudy said. "Most students — the huge majority — take the test seriously, are honest, and follow instructions."

Broudy also said, "When we have reason to believe that there is a problem of copying, we have a way of comparing wrong answers or comparing answers in general. If one finds a pattern of responses — especially wrong answers — then there’s an indicator that something improper may have occurred. So there are lots of built-in checks."

Broudy would not say, however, whether these checks were done at random, to all students’ answer sheets or only to those whose scores had been questioned.

"We prefer not to give out specific information on procedures that might essentially provide a means by which students might want to subvert them," he said.

With two million students being tested, Broudy added, "I wouldn’t be surprised if there were rare cases where problems occurred that might not be detected. But we think that overall, the system works, and works pretty well."

Among the cases that have apparently gone undetected are those of students comparing answers.

"I have not heard that one before, to tell you the truth — I mean the use of the break," said Broudy. "But part of my job — and our job in general — when we hear comments like this is to review them and look at them and if there is sufficient evidence to reconsider our procedures."

ETS President Gregory Anrig said, however, that current security measures are reasonable because cheating is not widespread.

"If there were widespread cheating on the SAT, then one would say, ‘Well, over time the effect of this would be that the correlation between SAT scores and freshman grades would change.’ The colleges regularly do validity studies to check that. In fact, the correlation has not changed over time," he said.

"I’m not denying that there’s cheating," Anrig added. "I do say that we have procedures in place to guard against cheating and we pursue them vigorously."

Charles Deacon, dean of admissions at Georgetown University, also thinks current safeguards are adequate. "Given that . . . [cheating] can happen, there are a lot of ways that it can be identified through the admissions process. I don’t think that we would be particularly interested in them creating a Gestapo-like environment. I think that would be going overboard."

But available data — and the testimony of students themselves — paint a less optimistic picture. According to recent surveys done by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Joseph and Edna Josephson Institute of Ethics in Marina Del Rey, Calif., three out of five high school students and one in three college students admitted to cheating at least once on an exam — though the survey does not single out the College Boards. As reported by The Washington Post’s Richard Morin, "American kids are lying, cheating and stealing in what some researchers fear are unprecedented numbers."

"I can tell you from experience at Churchill," said Churchill senior Ivan Snyder, "it’s all over the place. Not hard-core cheating, substituting, Larry Adler-type cheating, but going back in sections and talking about it during the break. Even when I took the exam, I heard people talking about the test, telling people what was coming up . . . . Both times I took the SAT, I saw it. I was sort of shocked because I thought, ‘You know, this is the SAT. This doesn’t happen.’"

Many scholarship competitions, such as the National Merit Scholarship Competition, rely heavily upon a student’s standardized test scores. In the National Merit competition, for instance, semifinalists are selected solely upon their PSAT scores. While they may not actually receive a scholarship from the competition, semifinalist status helps students in many other ways.

"That is a very valuable scholarship and is one of the most prestigious scholarships in the country," said Cinthia Schuman, executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest). "It opens up many doors — both financially and in terms of the schools that you can choose from — in terms of educational opportunities. The fact is that it is wrong to place so much emphasis on the PSAT, with all of its flaws. Students recognize that there is a game-like aura to the test because it doesn’t reflect the kind of skills they actually need in college, like reading, research and writing."

A National Merit Scholarship Corporation spokeswoman declined to comment, referring all questions about test security to ETS.

Because of standardized tests’ tremendous importance, some students argue that ETS should take a more active role in combating cheating. "What they should do is they should have two separate sheets, one for math and one for verbal, and pick up the verbal one in between breaks," suggested Sidwell senior Paul Hodgdon. "That way you can’t go back and change your answers. Or have more proctors, because Sidwell has two during the PSATs. For 100 people, that just doesn’t work."

Anrig warns, however, that while such measures might crack down on cheating, they would punish honest test-takers as well.

"I don’t believe you should treat all 1.6 million kids that take some form of the admission testing program as if they’re wrong-doers," Anrig said. "One could have procedures that would be sure to guard against any possible eventuality," he said, but that would mean treating the test-taker "not as a student who deserves to be treated properly, but as a prisoner in a correctional facility."

Bernard Noe, Sidwell’s Upper School principal, said, "If in fact — and there really is no hard evidence . . .cheating is widespread, that’s a sad statement about our students’ culture. It’s sad for the future that if you are willing to cheat on your SATs, you’re probably willing to cheat on your taxes or anything else that can be justified as beating the system. I hope to God that we are not teaching young values this way."