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    July 2019

    “Operation Varsity Blues” Reinforces Need for High Schools to Review Counseling Practices

    In March 2019, the FBI revealed an investigation into a college admissions fraud and bribery scheme whereby parents either paid to alter their child’s SAT scores or falsified athletics credentials to gain preferential admission to eight elite universities. About 50 arrests were announced as a result of “Operation Varsity Blues,” including the alleged “ringleader,” a private college admission counselor who created the scheme, handled the altering of standardized tests, and funneled money to corrupt athletics coaches and administrators. Some parents have pleaded guilty, and the FBI has indicated that more arrests and charges may be forthcoming.

    This scandal shines a spotlight on the need for K-12 schools to evaluate their college counseling practices. Schools should:

    • Audit requests for extended time on standardized admissions tests and evaluate consistency with students’ known accommodation needs. Review anomalies, keeping in mind federal disabilities laws and privacy requirements.
    • Emphasize the importance of academic honesty and integrity throughout your school, not solely in academic assignments. Creating a culture of honesty will reduce the temptation to cheat. Emphasize these values with parents and students.
    • Examine inconsistencies your counselors may discover, such as participation in an activity the student had not previously mentioned. In addition, scrutinize any request to confirm a student athlete’s status when the student does not participate in that particular sport.
    • Review your process for hiring and vetting proctors if your institution is a testing site that provides proctors. Review test security protocol; correct weaknesses. The College Board has stated that it prefers students receiving test accommodations to test at their home schools, if possible.
    • Train school employees who provide students with admissions references. Outline appropriate behaviors and considerations for references. Provide information on how to report concerns about a student’s application or reference request.
    • Consider auditing your college counseling office practices and procedures to ensure consistency in treatment of students as well as the security of school records.
    • Review your student discipline process regarding college applications. Does your requirement of academic honesty extend to admissions materials the student submits? Determine whether these rules and the process apply to college applications. If not, consider updating your student disciplinary process to expressly address college admissions.  

    In response to "Operation Varsity Blues", changes to college admissions may be coming. Schools should prepare for fallout to continue and take steps to strengthen their college counseling process.


    Resources

    The Haverford School Honor Code

    McLean High School Honor Code

    Turning the Tide II: Harvard Graduate School of Education Report on Admissions

    The Media is Outside. What Now?

    Crisis Communications: Avoid These Mistakes

    Beware Retaliation Against Whistle-Blowers

    By Heather A. Salko, senior risk management counsel


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