Ethical College Admissions: Depending on the Kindness of Strangers

Jim Jump is not impressed with the way the College Board is treating teachers who are proctors.

October 2, 2017
 

In one of my favorite episodes of The Simpsons, a local Springfield theater group remakes the Tennessee Williams play A Streetcar Named Desire as a musical. The musical Oh, Streetcar! turns Blanche DuBois’s famous line in the play -- “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers” -- from an ironic and tragic lament into a sappy, upbeat closing number that begins, “You can always depend on the kindness of strangers.” The lyric “A stranger’s just a friend you haven’t met” sounds like it was penned not by Tennessee Williams but rather Tennessee Tuxedo.

A newly announced policy change suggests that the College Board has joined Blanche DuBois in depending on the kindness of strangers.

Several weeks ago a friend and loyal ECA reader emailed me with a possible column topic. In August, after administering the new SAT for his students receiving extended time, he couldn’t find the form he normally fills out to receive a stipend for himself and other proctors. After searching the SAT Guide for Nonstandard Administration and being directed to the College Board website, he learned for the first time that there has been a change in policy. The College Board will no longer pay an honorarium to school staff proctoring an SAT administration during the school week.

The new policy apparently affects only school personnel administering the SAT or SAT subject tests during the school day. Testing administered on a weekend, before or after the school year (June or August), or by proctors who are not members of the school staff are all eligible for an honorarium.

A College Board spokesman confirmed the change in policy in a posting last week on the NACAC Exchange, suggesting that the motivation for the change was the desire to be in compliance with state laws as well as school and district policies that prevent salaried staff from “double-dipping” by receiving an honorarium while also being paid for doing their regular jobs. The College Board has not responded to an ECA request for examples of state laws informing the policy change.

At first glance this appears to be another instance of a nonprofit tightening its belt in response to the challenging philanthropic climate. But the College Board is hardly a typical nonprofit organization, with an annual “profit” (revenue minus expenses) in the vicinity of $100 million. Outlays for test proctors are probably not going to put the College Board out of business or lead to layoffs or cuts in executive compensation. So it’s unlikely that the motivation for the policy change is driven by economics, unless you happen to be one of those cynical folks who believe that every College Board decision is driven by economics.

The College Board justification for the change seems rooted in concern over legal issues from individuals double-dipping and being paid by both the school and the College Board. I am not an expert on the legal ramifications, but from an ethical perspective, double-dipping creates the potential for conflict of interest. Avoiding conflict of interest is one of the ethical principles that’s been added to the new NACAC SPGP: Code of Ethics and Professional Practices. But does administering an SAT during school time constitute conflict of interest?

The answer is maybe. As a test administrator or proctor, are you acting as an agent for your school or for the College Board? Are you serving your students or the testing agency? The answer is probably both, but in the vast majority of cases any conflict of interest would be small indeed, not even close to the level of conflict of interest demonstrated by agents overseas who are receiving payment both from college clients and individual student clients. Serving as a test proctor or a test-center administrator, whether during the school day or on a Saturday, is a potential conflict of interest, and that potential for conflict of interest does not disappear just because you are not receiving remuneration.

I find it interesting that the College Board refers to payments to proctors as “honoraria.” An honorarium implies a gift rather than payment for services rendered, and that raises more fundamental questions about how the College Board views its relationship with those who administer the SAT.

A standing joke in my school is that all of us are assumed to work for the development office, no matter what our responsibilities may be. But is that a joke when it comes to the College Board? Do officials there assume that all of us who work as educational first responders ultimately work for them? Does being a College Board member carry with it an obligation to serve as a cog in its standardized testing machine? Does the College Board view test-center administrators and proctors as employees, independent contractors or servants?

The friend who originally contacted me about the policy change described the College Board’s attitude as “audacity,” a word that would have made a good SAT vocabulary word in previous iterations of the test. He points out that the College Board expects that schools will provide -- and underwrite -- the cost of administering the SAT, from providing space to providing computers to covering costs for security. He and others who posted on the NACAC exchange have also observed that honoraria for proctoring cover only testing time, but not prep time or the time spent completing tons of paperwork.

Any policy change has unanticipated consequences. I hope this will open a conversation about the assumptions the College Board operates under with regard to testing. If there are potential legal and ethical issues with school personnel receiving an honorarium for administering testing during the school day, then school personnel probably shouldn’t be administering on school days, and perhaps not at all. The College Board should be responsible for overseeing test administrations, from paying independent supervisors and proctors to paying for rental of school facilities where testing is done. That’s a discussion worth having, but I’m not holding my breath.

Depending on the kindness of strangers as a business plan works only as long as strangers don’t know you well enough to stop wanting to be kind.

Bio

Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Va. He has been at St. Christopher’s since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women’s basketball coach and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

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