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Lazarus | SAT, ACT test firms are selling out high school students to marketers

Lazarus | SAT, ACT test firms are selling out high school students to marketers
The big testing companies sell student data to colleges and marketers. Privacy advocates say young people shouldn't have to protect their privacy during tests. (McClatchy-Tribune)

We need to do a much better job of not selling out our kids.

Specifically, I’m thinking about the big companies that oversee standardized testing of high school students — and then turn around and sell student info to others.

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My teenage son received a letter the other day from the National Student Leadership Conference, one of a number of elite-sounding summertime events for high achievers. The cost of attending typically runs in the thousands of dollars.

I have no problem with these gatherings. They sound like good opportunities for young people to meet like-minded friends, learn new things and hear from interesting guest speakers.

What bugs me, though, is the way these things are pitched to teens, often in the form of a bogus academic honor, with an added suggestion that attending will boost your chances of getting into a good college, which it probably won’t.

This is deceptive marketing, pure and simple, and the fact that it’s targeting kids makes it doubly offensive.

Worse, these “student leadership” organizations are buying access to high schoolers through the testing firms, which should know better than to think young people are savvy enough about privacy issues to safeguard their personal information.

“It’s troubling,” said Diana Graber, founder of an educational program called Cyber Civics and a digital literacy teacher at Journey School in Aliso Viejo.

“Kids will willingly give away their information, especially to something respectable like a testing company,” she said. “No one tells them not to.”

One of the top testing firms, ACT, told me nearly three-quarters of test takers agree to share their personal information.

I wrote last year about a letter my son received from the National Academy of Future Scientists and Technologists, which had bestowed on him its “Award of Excellence for outstanding academic achievement, leadership potential and determination to serve humanity in the field of science and technology."

The letter said my son had been chosen to serve as a delegate at the "highly selective" Congress of Future Science and Technology Leaders being held that summer in Boston. It said attending the event could make him “a much stronger candidate for competitive college and graduate school admissions.”

Perhaps the most shameless part of the packet was where it said my son had been personally nominated by a Harvard senior named Shree Bose, who I managed to track down.

She told me by phone that even though she’d never met or heard of my son, she worked with the National Academy of Future Scientists and Technologists, and viewed her “nominations” more as invitations. “It’s an invitation to come,” she told me.

No, it’s a nomination, like for an Oscar or a Grammy. And telling a kid he’s been nominated for recognition of his accomplishments is the falsest of false pretenses in selling a product.

The latest letter from the National Student Leadership Conference says my son is invited to join “a select group of student leaders from across the country and around the world” at an event next summer.

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It says if he attends the program — which can cost anywhere from $2,500 to more than $5,000 — he will be “awarded an Academic Transcript, Letters of Recommendation and a Certificate of Achievement to include in your college applications.”

I spoke with several college admissions officers. They all said such materials play little if any role in deciding whether to accept a student.

David Lowitz, marketing director for the National Student Leadership Conference, said the organization sends its letters to about 4% of U.S. high school students. Therefore, he said, it’s accurate to say my son, if he signed up, would be among “a select group” of his peers.

On the other hand, there are about 15 million kids now in grades nine through 12, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That means the National Student Leadership Conference is sending out as many as 600,000 solicitations, which is a fairly aggressive direct-mail campaign.

The big dogs in the testing field are the College Board, which administers the SAT and PSAT tests, and ACT, which administers its namesake tests.

A lawsuit filed in 2013 charged that both companies sell students’ personally identifiable information for a profit of at least 33 cents per test taker. A federal appeals court dismissed the suit in 2015 on grounds that students suffered no material harm.

“The fact that defendants allegedly collected a fee from participating educational organizations and did not disclose this sale did not make plaintiffs worse off,” the court ruled.

The going rate these days is closer to 42 cents per student, according to ACT. Multiply that by an estimated 3.6 million high school seniors and you’re looking at some real money.

Paul Weeks, ACT’s senior vice president of client relations, told me providing leads to colleges and other “education-related” organizations represents “a healthy revenue source for us.”

However, he said his company strives to weed out bad actors that use students’ info to manipulate them into spending money.

“We deny a number of applications each year,” Weeks said of requests for marketing leads.

The College Board sent an email outlining its information-sharing policies but declined to make anyone available to speak with me.

Both ACT and the College Board say disclosure of information by students is voluntary — that is, the test taker has to opt in, usually during the registration process.

But it’s fair to question if young people fully understand opt-ins and opt-outs. Moreover, many teens might naturally conclude they’d be harming their college-acceptance chances by failing to disclose all requested information.

“They’ll feel compelled to do it,” said Hayley Kaplan, a Los Angeles privacy advocate. “They’ll think that if they don’t check all the boxes, they’ll lose an opportunity.”

With adults, maybe you can say “buyer beware.” With kids, we want to err on the side of caution. Just as we regulate advertising of various products to young people, a strong case can be made for not marketing to teens based on standardized tests.

If not that, then the Federal Trade Commission should lay down clear guidelines for the marketing of high school “leadership” events, with a strict prohibition on presenting them as individual honors or recognition of personal achievement.

These conferences are summer camps on steroids. I don’t question their value for some high schoolers.

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But don’t sell them as something they’re not.

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