Gordon Caplan, a prominent attorney from Greenwich, Conn., pleaded guilty in May to paying $75,000 to get his daughter fraudulently diagnosed with special needs, which enabled her to get extra time on the ACT exam. Speaking outside the federal courthouse in Boston, he apologized to his daughter.
“I’m also sorry to all the other kids out there who are in the college admissions process and to all the parents who are helping and supporting them,” Caplan said, surrounded by his attorneys. In court, Caplan also admitted he paid to have his daughter's answers corrected by a hand-picked proctor after she took the test.
Wealthy parents illegally paying bribes so their kids could get extra time to take the SAT or ACT exam is a central part of the college admissions scandal. And while what Caplan and other accused parents did is illegal, higher education analysts say students living in affluent, suburban towns like Greenwich are much more likely to get extra time — legally. In 2011, The College Board, the nonprofit that runs the SAT, received 80,000 requests for extended time. Five years later, that number doubled to 160,000.
Paul Reville, a former Massachusetts education secretary who now teaches at Harvard University, attributes the recent spike to savvy parents realizing that if their kids get more time on the test, they’re likely to perform better.
“We’ve seen a remarkable and disturbing pattern lately of highly-advantaged people taking illegal advantage of the college admissions system, but this is just the tip of the iceberg," Reville said. “Whether or not you can get a designation for a special need that will then enable you to get extended time so you can improve your scores on the SAT is just one of many legal pathways to the advantaged further advantaging their children.”
Affluent families getting extra test time for their kids ultimately comes at the expense of those who do not receive that accommodation, increasing inequality.
“That’s a real concern, and I think inequities are across the board in education,” said David Fleishman, school superintendent in Newton, where many parents hope their kids will secure a spot at a bumper-sticker-worthy college.
At Newton North High School, one in three students have a special learning accommodation and are, therefore, eligible for extra time on the SAT. But Fleishman said just because a student has a special need does not mean that they actually receive extended time on the test.
“It's confusing to equate those two factors," Fleishman said, pointing out that Newton's districtwide rate for special learning accommodations is 19 percent — just above the statewide average. Fleishman said he doesn't know what percentage of his students take extended time on the SAT because they must apply separately to The College Board.
Nationally, The College Board says the percentage of students who take the SAT with accommodations fluctuates from year to year, but the figure is generally about 4 percent. The nonprofit does not release data broken down by district or school.
Fleishman said students in his district are experiencing a spike in anxiety and attention deficit disorders.
"We're seeing more students who are emotionally fragile — especially at younger ages, at the elementary school level — so that's something we're paying a lot of attention to," Fleishman said.
So is Henry Turner, principal of Newton North, who notes that 20 percent of students at his high school are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.
"I think those who just label Newton as an affluent community, don't really know Newton,” Turner said, walking the halls during Senior Week and greeting students. “Are there parents who are trying to be savvy? I think that's probably accurate. I just don't think that's the whole story."
The increase in anxiety among teenagers in Newton is real, said Turner, who acknowledged some hired psychologists may be helping families gain an edge.
"We also use our own school psychologists to reassess students, so I think we have a good process to vet out some of those parents who are trying to game the system," Turner said.
A pediatrician and school psychologist conducted tests on Susan Donellan’s daughter, Betsy, when she was in elementary school and concluded that she had anxiety and attention deficit disorder.
"She's the type of kid, due to her anxiety, that shuts down when she sees something daunting — a major assignment, a standardized test,” Donellan said. “Whatever it is, she'll look at it and say, 'Oh God. I'm never going to finish this. I can't,' and then doesn't perform at all."
Now a sophomore at Newton North, Betsy will seek extra time on the SAT next year. In the wake of the college admission scandal, Donellan is concerned she and other kids who legitimately need the accommodation will be denied.
"I think [the college admissions scandal] sheds a negative light on the people like my kid, who I've seen grow and learn in a way that I know she wouldn't have otherwise,” she said.