Florida SAT cheating accusation is almost certain to end badly

Last week, news came out that Kamila Campbell, a Florida teen, had her scores withheld by the College Board for “substantial agreement between your answers on one or more score sections of the test and those of other test-takers.”  Basically, College Board was saying there was evidence she may have cheated. Ms. Campbell adamantly denies cheating, and points to her work with a tutor and studying on her own for her 330 point improvement. I don’t know the details of what College Board saw, but I can say that while a 330 point improvement is difficult, it’s not immediately suspicious.

I find it unlikely that we will get a clear resolution.  There probably won’t be a “smoking gun” that proves that Ms. Campbell cheated, or something similarly clear that proves she didn’t.  Situations like these depend on likelihoods. An accumulation of very unlikely coincidences is what flagged her test score. The problem is, sometimes, an accumulation of unlikely coincidences is just that; there is no underlying cause.

Since we won’t get a clear “yes” or “no” from College Board, lots of feelings will be hurt and groups will take this for a larger political point.  I think it is easy to understand why people are upset that Ms. Campbell is being accused. We want to celebrate the improvements that students make on the SAT, especially those from disadvantaged groups.  A 330 point improvement is something to be proud of! We can only imagine how traumatic it must be for a teenager to go through all of this negatively focused national media attention.  I work with plenty of students who struggle to handle the typical college admissions and testing process, and this young woman must deal with a giant national media circus on top!

This happened during a very particular moment for the College Board.  Within just the last year, they have had their reputation tarnished by leaked international tests, reusing international tests for U.S. test takers, and other controversies.  Many U.S. test takers have the impression that cheating is rampant and that they are being taken advantage of when earning their scores through honest, hard work.  These students want to see the College Board cracking down on cheating, and Ms. Campbell’s circumstances make them suspicious.

Ms. Campbell and her family are being very aggressive in her defense, and I think that is wise.  Whether College Board releases her scores or not, she will be better off for not having sat idly by.  I think College Board has a very difficult tightrope to walk. Most importantly, they must do their best to do right by this young woman. They must also show their doubters that they are making efforts to catch cheating and they must show everyone that they are sensitive to the seriousness of accusing a young person with her particular background of cheating.

If College Board feels the evidence of cheating is strong enough and they don’t release her scores, many will paint it as evidence of bigotry.  If College Board doesn’t see clear enough evidence of cheating and releases the scores, those who think College Board doesn’t care about cheating will argue this instance is yet more proof.  But the side who gets the resolution they want won’t get away unscathed. They will be seen by their detractors as a mob who used their voices to perpetuate an injustice.

I don’t know what happened, and only a handful of people actually do.  What I do feel certain of, however, is that this will likely end badly for everyone.