University of Iowa tightens controls amid international student concerns

Audit comes amid media reports of the students hiring 'ringers' to take exams

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IOWA CITY — The University of Iowa has tightened enrollment checks and balances on international students after auditors found some were inappropriately waived through English-language requirements or taking too many online courses.

The internal audit’s findings come amid reports of widespread cheating involving international students.

Reuters earlier this year reported, mostly citing unnamed sources, that international students were hiring “ringers” to take exams and that UI officials were investigating at least 30 online students who might have tried to cheat.

Reuters followed that report with an investigation that found “widespread” cheating in a program designed to help international students do well on ACT exams. The news service’s investigation of the Global Assessment Certificate program, which is owned and overseen by ACT in Iowa City, found school officials and proctors at several centers overseas ignored or were even complicit in student cheating on the ACT.

Fallout from the investigation included cancellation of the ACT college exam in South Korea and Hong Kong, according to a New York Times report. And Reuters in August reported ACT was laying off its head of test security and auditing nearly 200 education centers in light of the cheating reports.

The scandal could be relevant to the UI audit in that it found, among other things, university officials waived the English Proficiency Evaluation requirement for some international students and instead let them provide ACT or SAT scores without follow-up as required.

The university’s admission website states students who submit alternate scores from ACT or SAT tests — or the like — “will be required to take an on-campus English Proficiency Evaluation.”

But in the 2015 fall semester, five of 61 international students who submitted alternate scores “had the on-campus evaluation requirement waived and were subsequently allowed to enroll in a regular course load with no further work in English required,” according to the audit.

Auditors reported that opinions differ on whether alternative scores — especially those like the ACT and SAT that don’t include a speaking component — are adequate indicators of a person’s English abilities.

“Waiving the on-campus evaluation requirement based on scores that do not encompass a speaking component increases the risk that students do not have a strong grasp of the English language prior to taking a regular course load at the university,” according to the audit.

Auditors also discovered that not all of the university’s international students here on F-1 visas are pursuing a required “full course of study” as defined by federal regulations.

Undergraduate students are supposed to take at least 12 hours a semester; graduate students must take at least nine hours; and no more than one course or three credits can come via online or distance education, according to the federal guidelines.

But a review of UI international enrollment in fall 2015 found 16 students on F-1 visas were not taking a full course load “when factoring in the maximum amount of online hours.”

“These students’ percentage of online credit hours ranged from 33 percent to 75 percent,” according to the audit.

Downing Thomas, associate provost and dean of UI International Programs, acknowledged that recent news of international student cheating on ACT exams and in online courses adds another layer of concern to the audit’s findings.

But, he said, the university this fall increased its rigor to make sure international students are appropriately enrolled.

“We identified a number of students who didn’t have the appropriate mix of online and in-person courses, and we sent messages out to all of them,” Thomas said.

Those messages went out to a few dozen students in August, and Thomas said those efforts decreased the outstanding issues to a handful. UI officials are continuing to work with students to make sure they’re in compliance.

The university also followed up with the 16 students identified in the audit as inappropriately enrolled to ensure they are in compliance. And, Thomas said, the university reached out to those international students who received English-proficiency waivers to make sure they take the required assessments.

“We have tightened that up,” he said.

Thomas said the UI has reinforced the importance of academic integrity both through orientation programs and pre-departure programs in China, for example.

The university’s international student population has skyrocketed in recent years — more than doubling from 2,153 in 2007 to 4,540 in 2015, according to UI International Programs. But the university this fall is expecting fewer first-year international students — although official numbers aren’t yet available.

“It’s a pretty significant drop,” Thomas said, estimating 100 to 150 fewer international students. “We are not sure why. We will have to look at that.”

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