Can a valid, secure online SAT really be given at home?

While online testing is nothing new, and some students have already taken the SAT online, the exam has never been given digitally at home. Reporters who heard the news on a conference call quickly raised questions about concerns that students could cheat with their parents whispering answers, and about proctoring technology invading the privacy of young people taking the test in their homes.

There were questions, too, about how fair it would be to expect students who live in crowded or chaotic homes to take a three-hour-plus test in a quiet space without disruptions, and whether the scores of this test could be compared to previous scores from tests taken in person at a testing site.

College Board officials’ answer: Don’t worry, we’ve got this.

“If this was four years ago, we could not make this commitment” about keeping the test secure, said Jeremy Singer, president of the College Board. “The technology was not there.”

But there are a number of equity and validity issues that can’t be waved away.

Even sophisticated technology can be circumvented: There are entire websites devoted to explaining how to circumvent proctoring apps. And there are real concerns about how invasive proctoring technology actually is, according to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a nonprofit known as FairTest aimed at ending the misuse of standardized tests.

How many trained remote proctors are there to work on a single day when hundreds of thousands of students might take a test at the same time? And how accurate is plagiarism-detection software? Many students from poor families only have access to smartphones. Is it fair to compare a score from a test taken on a phone, which can skew graphics, to a test taken on a laptop? What about families with no or spotty Internet service? How can they ensure adequate accommodations for students with special needs when they are at home?

College Board chief executive David Coleman said Wednesday that the covid-19 crisis has laid bare the vast inequities in American society and public schools, and that any effort to administer a digital, at-home test effort would be pursued in the name of educational equity. That’s certainly a laudable goal. But achieving it is not something that Coleman or anybody else can truly meet.

“We feel that in a situation where these tests are optional, what is crucial is that low-income students also have that option to distinguish themselves by having that test score to add to their data,” he said.

But the College Board, a nonprofit, has critics who said they suspect different motives for an online at-home SAT. Bob Schaeffer, interim executive director of FairTest, noted that the College Board — which brought in $1 billion in revenue in 2017 and netted $140 million, tax forms show — has lost millions of dollars because of repeated cancellations of exam administrations this year during the pandemic.

The Washington Post’s Nick Anderson has reported that an estimated 1 million high school juniors are missing the chance this spring to get their first SAT score. The College Board said 760,000 students for the class of 2020-21 have already taken the exam. (It costs about $50 to take the SAT without the essay, though many students pay nothing and take it at their schools.)

Wednesday’s announcement comes amid a growing national test-optional movement, in which an unprecedented number of colleges and universities have told applicants they don’t have to submit an SAT or ACT test score for 2020-21 or longer. Now more than 1,100 schools, including some of the largest and top-tier, have joined.

College admissions counselors posted emails with the Internet mailing list for the National Association for College Admissions Counselors raising concerns about the validity of any digital SAT, including Jon Boeckenstedt, vice provost of enrollment management at Oregon State University. He also wrote in a tweet (that refers to EM, or enrollment management):

Other people, too, criticized the announcement on Twitter:

To be sure, more colleges and universities still require a test score than don’t, and many students want to take one of the two main admissions tests, the SAT and ACT.

But equity issues won’t go away.

Asked how students from low-income families without technology and Internet could get devices and access, College Board officials said they were working with partners to get all families the devices and access they need. Coleman noted that some 8,000 families have called in with problems related to online testing. He said there are now 73 employees fielding calls that each take no less than 30 minutes. Remember that some 1 million juniors are missing the exam this spring and may want to take it in the fall. It just isn’t possible, however, to meet the needs of many thousands of people at once — and it is the poor who will end up on the short end of this, as usual, despite the best of Coleman’s intentions.

The validity of an SAT taken at home was another issue Coleman tried to address, but not authoritatively. Asked whether students sitting down in very different circumstances to take it would render the scores invalid or not comparable to past exams given in traditional settings, he said no and no.

“The facts are that we have been working with digital testing on the SAT for the past five years and over the past couple years have been piloting SATs in schools and have reached tens of thousands of students,” he said.

“As a question of science and psychometric validity, we can absolutely do an apples to apples comparison” between an SAT taken at home online and one taken on paper in a traditional school setting, he said.

In fact, there are questions about whether comparisons would be valid, and besides, there have long been questions about the psychometric validity of college admissions test scores in general. Researchers consistently say that the strongest correlation is between a score and a child’s home Zip code.

Socio-economic factors rule when it comes to test scores, a sentiment not lost on Coleman and Priscilla Rodriguez, vice president for college readiness assessments at the College Board, who both noted Wednesday that college admissions officers would have to consider the context of the environment in which a student took the SAT. Kristina Wong Davis, Purdue University’s vice provost for enrollment management, also spoke about the issue, saying, “Of course we will look at these exams in the contest of this is not a normal environment. Students are under a lot of anxiety.”

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