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EUGENE, Ore. -- Is the admission process broken for Chinese applicants to American colleges?

Variations of that question came up again and again during sessions on Wednesday at the Overseas Association for College Admission Counseling [OACAC] conference. Persistent concerns about standardized test fraud, doctored transcripts and fake admission letters -- and the role of agents in helping to "pollute" the application process (as one session description put it) -- are causing some to worry that Chinese students might think cheating is their only choice.

"We need to make it [the application process] safe for honest applicants," said Terry Crawford, the chief executive officer and co-founder of InitialView, a video interviewing company based in Beijing.

"There's a perception in China that the system is rigged, that if you pay enough money you're going to get the results that you want," Crawford said. He cited a recent China Newsweek article laying out the process and prices for cheating on the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) as just one example of the type of story that feeds into this perception (the reporter received test answers during the exam via a small, wireless-enabled watch).

"What we're seeing is no one's paying a price -- no one's paying a price for cheating," said Tomer Rothschild, the co-founder of Elite Scholars of China, a company that helps Chinese students apply to American colleges. "It goes unpunished."

Rothschild, like Crawford, cited the influence of media articles describing how easy it is to cheat on standardized tests. "If you like cheating, then that's very exciting because you realize how easy it is. But assuming you don't get that same stimulation from cheating, imagine if you just want to play by the rules -- how do you feel?" he asked.

Rothschild's co-presenter, Kevin Sim, a counselor with Raffles Institution, a high school in Singapore, described his own investigations into cheating on the SAT (the vast majority of Chinese students taking the SAT do so outside of mainland China, in Hong Kong or Singapore or elsewhere). Sim described being able to procure test materials in advance of November's SAT.

"To be completely fair to the SAT, if you were to go to the same people, they offer the PSAT answers, they have ACT, TOEFL, they will sit for the exam for you," Sim said. "There was an advertisement for people to be 'ghost testers.'"

"The most interesting thing I managed to get hold of was from a very large test prep agency in China -- he handed over to me the Chinese SAT bible," Sim continued. "In that bible there was the answer scheme for every single North American SAT test ever issued" and a record of whether each had been used in Asia.

"How they managed to get that, where they got it from," he said, "I don't know."

In June, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted 15 Chinese nationals for an alleged cheating scheme in which they took the SAT, TOEFL and Graduate Record Examination (GRE) on their compatriots' behalf.

Representatives of the College Board and Educational Testing Service -- which administers the SAT on behalf of the College Board and also offers the TOEFL and GRE -- spoke generally about their ongoing efforts to ferret out fraud at an OACAC panel on Wednesday. Cheating may be a perennial problem, but the College Board's Clay Hensley noted that these days "the scale is different" in reference to the growing number of international applicants to American colleges -- the number of international students in the U.S. has risen by 72 percent since 2000, with much of that growth coming from China -- while ETS's Michelle Hampton highlighted the ways that technology advances are continually changing the face of cheating.

In a statement, ETS's spokesman, Tom Ewing, wrote, "As organizations and individuals attempt new ways of illegally obtaining and sharing test materials for their own profit or benefit -- to the detriment of all students -- we consistently introduce new test security measures. We will continue to enhance our test security measures while keeping the SAT accessible and affordable." He cited some of those measures, including security procedures for the delivery and storage of tests, training and certification of test center staff and test center audits, and post-test statistical analyses to identify potential problems.

Yet the College Board and ETS have faced questions about the reported reuse of SAT test items and appropriate penalties for students found to have cheated (see this Washington Post article on these subjects, for example). When asked by an audience member on Wednesday whether the College Board would be willing to tell colleges about cases in which students who'd planned to send scores to them instead have those scores canceled for fraud, Hensley said that's under consideration.

"It blows my mind that students who cheat on the SAT get to take the test again -- why aren't they outed to all of your schools?" said Hamilton Gregg, a counselor at Harrow International School, in Beijing, who wrote a blog post for OACAC this spring titled "Is the Admission Process Broken?" (and chaired a session by that same name on Wednesday).

It's hard to estimate the prevalence of cheating, but one point that was clear on Wednesday at the OACAC conference is that the perception of its pervasiveness is itself a problem. No one wants to be the dupe left behind.

Jonathan Dunn, a college counselor at Fairmont Preparatory Academy, in California, spoke of a high school he works with in China that is dealing with upset parents after it moved to send all transcripts directly to colleges using software from Naviance. "There has been such parental backlash," Dunn said from his spot in the audience at one session. "The parents are now pressuring the principal -- [saying ] 'you mean we can't get our transcripts to give to an agent who can doctor them and then send them on to colleges?'"

"Be aware," Dunn said in summary, "that there are schools out there that are really struggling to do it the right way, but they're getting a lot of community and parental pressure."

Gregg emphasized the need for colleges to "use your soft power to support [high] schools that are doing a good and ethical job. That takes time on your part -- it also takes money. You need to travel to China."

"I know a lot of schools are saying we love Chinese students -- they're full pay -- but use those dollars to improve admissions practices," said Gregg, who also advocated interviewing applicants face-to-face ("is it really that impossible to interview every appropriate candidate from China," he asked in his blog post on this topic) and ending the practice of repeating some essay questions from year to year on the Common Application, among other changes.

The foreignness and complexity of the U.S. admissions process in a Chinese context was another theme of the discussions at OACAC on Wednesday. Transcripts, letters of recommendation, personal essays -- these are literally foreign concepts in an educational system where college entrance is based on a student's score on the Chinese college entrance examination known as the gaokao.

In navigating the American application process, what then are Chinese students to do? They "choose the best service," whether that comes from school-based counselors or from outside agents, said Percy Jiang, a counselor and teacher at Beijing National Day School.

"The majority of public high schools in China do not provide counseling services, unfortunately," said Jiang, who chaired an OACAC session with another catchy title -- "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Agent" -- that focused on the differences in the types of college counseling commonly available in China as well as concerns about agents doctoring or otherwise falsifying students' application materials. That session also focused on how colleges can work directly with school-based counselors in Chinese high schools.

"The exciting thing is I am seeing more and more schools that are trying to launch their school-based counseling," Jiang said, "which is encouraging."

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