Students and Teachers Detail Pervasive Cheating in a Program Owned by Test Giant ACT

Steve Stecklow, Reuters, July 25, 2016

For many Chinese high school students hoping to get into a U.S. university, the pitch is hard to resist.

Take English-language courses in China in a program recognized by admissions offices at more than 60 colleges in the United States–including state universities in New York, Michigan, Iowa and Missouri. Prepare for the ACT, America’s most popular college entrance exam. And take it in mainland China, instead of traveling elsewhere as other Chinese students must.

The program, known as the Global Assessment Certificate, also offers some students an advantage that isn’t advertised: At three different GAC centers, school officials and proctors ignored and were sometimes complicit in student cheating on the ACT, according to seven students interviewed by Reuters.

The GAC program, which can cost students $10,000 a year or more, has emerged as one of many avenues in Asia used to exploit weaknesses in the U.S. college admissions process.

But the most remarkable aspect of this program is that the ACT itself owns and oversees it.

The GAC program is operated by a foreign subsidiary of ACT Inc, the Iowa-based not-for-profit that administers the crucial college entrance exam. The subsidiary, ACT Education Solutions Ltd, is headquartered in Hong Kong.

The curriculum at GAC centers is designed to teach non-native English speakers reading, writing and other skills for college. The program has about 5,000 students in 11 countries at 197 centers. Three-quarters of the centers are in mainland China. The vast majority of GAC students take the ACT, which American colleges use to assess applicants.

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But interviews with some students who attended GAC centers call the program’s integrity into question. One now attending the University of California, Los Angeles, said a GAC administrator in China let him practice answering almost half the questions that would appear on the actual ACT about a week before the exam was given. Another student, now at a major university in the Midwest, said his Chinese center provided students with two articles that appeared on an ACT he later took there.

What’s more, eight teachers or administrators who have worked at seven different Chinese GAC centers described cheating in program courses. Some said it was widespread. They said students turned in assignments that were plagiarized. At two different centers, former teachers said, officials encouraged them to give students exam questions and sometimes even answers in advance to ensure that they passed.

Jason Thieman resigned in January after nearly five months as a teacher at the GAC center at Jimei University in the southern Chinese city of Xiamen. He said he left after students complained that he was cracking down on cheating and plagiarism.

“If every university admissions office that accepted GAC students knew about what was going on with the GAC, and especially with the ACT, I think they wouldn’t want to accept the students anymore,” Thieman said. “It’s outrageous.”

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