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How It Feels When Software Watches You Take Tests



An unusual school year has started in earnest, and with it has come the return of digital proctoring programs. This is software that can lock down students’ computers, record their faces and scan their rooms, all with the intention to thwart cheating.

These programs, with names like ProctorU and Proctorio, first raised alarms about privacy as they were adopted by schools. Now many students are finding that the programs they’re required to use may not have been well-designed to consider race, class or disability — and in some cases, simply don’t work. Many are organizing on and across campuses for alternatives or for their eradication.

The rigidity of online proctoring has exacerbated an already difficult year, students say, further marginalizing them at the very moments they’re trying to prove themselves. Here are some things that can go wrong with testing and digital surveillance.

Before the pandemic, Sabrina Navarro, 20, a junior at California State University, Fullerton, hadn’t thought to register her chronic tic disorder with her university’s disability services office. The disorder, which she’d lived with since she was 6, hadn’t ever affected her education.

“I’m good at covering it up,” she said of her disorder. “A lot of my friends don’t even know that I have it.”

This semester, though, scared that her involuntary mouth movements would get her flagged for cheating, she went to get medical records to prove her diagnosis and request accommodations.

If the majority of her classes didn’t require Proctorio, this wouldn’t be a concern, she said.

But Ms. Navarro feared Proctorio would record her tics and send her professors footage for review. Ticcing happens more frequently for her during stressful situations, like an exam.

“Just the fact that professors might have access to seeing me ticcing, over and over again — it feels like an invasion of privacy with something that all my life, I’ve been pretty good at hiding,” she said, speaking from her family home in Alhambra, Calif. that smelled “like fire” because of blazes raging nearby.

Students who request accommodations for their disabilities often have to cope with inaccurate judgments that they’re cheating, said Maria Town, president of the American Association of People with Disabilities. Monitoring their behavior for compliance creates an accessibility barrier.

“It can be difficult not only to request, receive and use accommodations,” she said. “If you are then accused of cheating on an exam that you worked really hard for because it’s not accessible, its just going to amplify all those emotions.”

Proctorio’s chief executive, Mike Olsen, said in an interview that his software did not penalize students for perceived infractions, but instead relied on faculty to make judgment calls about test-taking behavior. “We ask the faculty before they review the footage, what they’re interested in,” he said. “That could be getting up and leaving the exam session, it could be other voices in the room. When they set that, what we’re going to do is identify those moments in time. For the example of a child coming and asking a question or saying they want a drink of water, the faculty is going to see that and generally — I can’t speak for all faculty — generally the faculty is going to say that’s not an issue.”

Jazi, 19, a student at the University of Texas at San Antonio, finished her freshman year remotely after in-person instruction was suspended in March. (The New York Times agreed to not use her full name because she was afraid of retaliation from the school.) Doing class work from home, she was also charged with taking care of her younger siblings, ages 12 and 8.

Students using Proctorio are generally recommended to find quiet, well-lit places to take exams. Moving offscreen or speaking to someone else in a room, both things Jazi needed to do while watching her siblings, can be flagged as suspicious.

When her youngest sibling would bang on doors in the middle of an exam, she’d try not to look away from her screen.

“I was ignoring him the entire time, just saying, ‘Please, God, don’t let them email me about the sound,’” as her mic levels spiked onscreen, she said.

Jazi hadn’t previously felt out of place as a first-generation student on scholarships at the school, where a number of her peers come from a similar background. But being sent home to juggle school and child care on camera made her feel like she didn’t belong.

“Some of my classmates were sent back to a full home. Two parents. They don’t have to work. They just focus on their classes,” she said.

When her sophomore year started in the fall, Jazi emptied her savings account to move back to campus. “I knew that if I had stayed home, there was no way I would pass,” she said. “You constantly ask ‘Why is this so hard?’ Because you know it doesn’t have to be that way. But it is.”

T. Sydney Bergeron Mikus, 25, started studying for the LSAT in 2016. They (Sydney uses gender-neutral pronouns) have a spate of chronic illnesses, coupled with cognitive impairments that they describe as similar to A.D.H.D.

It adds up to a laundry list of conditions that can be difficult to explain to others. Accustomed to being doubted, when Sydney was scheduled to take the LSAT-Flex this fall — an adjusted version of the test for law school — they got a jump on the paperwork that would allow them some accommodations. This includes extra water and snacks on their desk.

But when the time came, the test’s proctor, from the company ProctorU, was not aware that those accommodations had been approved. During the 360-degree room scan required by the company before testing, Sydney’s proctor questioned the water and food, forcing them to pull up documentation during the test period.

Things got worse from there, Sydney said. The software glitched frequently, switching from the LSAT screen to the ProctorU setup screen.

“Every time it would interrupt me, I would lose my train of thought and had to reread the passage,” Sydney said.

Then, during a break between test sections, the software kicked Sydney out entirely. They sought help from ProctorU’s support staff. They were connected to a new proctor, again having to explain the food and water on the desk.

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After they finished the second section, they were once again booted out of the test.

Overall, the test “took an hour longer than I expected total,” Sydney said. (ProctorU did not return a request for comment on experiences like Sydney’s.) Sydney has not yet decided whether to retake the test, though they are leaning toward keeping whatever score they receive. “It doesn’t seem worth it to me to risk experiencing issues with ProctorU yet again,” they said.

Sergine Beaubrun, 30, graduated law school in May. Before taking the bar exam in New York, she had to complete a “mock exam” from ExamSoft, a much-criticized company administering the exam remotely this year. One facet of the mock exam involves that the software “identify” the tester’s face. It could not recognize Ms. Beaubrun, who is Afro-Latina.

“It couldn’t see me at all,” she said. “It was the middle of the day so the sun was still shining. I was in a boardroom, so bright lights, fluorescent lights. The ones that make you look really ugly. I was sitting directly under them.”

She tried again, and again, but the program failed to recognize her. The image it was attempting to process made her skin darker than it was. Finally, she stood up on the table where she was working and put her laptop directly under the light. Only then was her picture accepted.

Ms. Beaubrun wants to practice immigration or civil rights law. She graduated with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, so passing the bar exam has become an immediate material concern. She started experiencing anxiety attacks for the first time earlier this year. “I’m just suffering, hoping that I can take this exam,” she said.

Areeb Been Khan, 27, also graduated law school in May. His experience preparing for the bar has been similar.

“I tried a bunch of things like switching rooms, sitting in front of a window, going to the bathroom where there was bright light, and even putting a desk lamp directly in front of my face as seen in my tweet,” he wrote in an email.

Mr. Khan said five days later, in a position he had already tried, the software was suddenly able to recognize his face and allowed him to proceed. He said ExamSoft support told him this happens sometimes, and the software “needed a baseline for my face.”

If the issue arose on the day of the actual bar, Mr. Khan was told to contact ExamSoft support again, which could cut into his time for the exam itself. The company responded “that I would need to coordinate extra time with the N.Y. Bar Association myself,” he said.

“I am a brown person with a beard. I do not believe my features are particularly anomalous,” Mr. Khan said.

“I cannot imagine any larger disaster than spending the last four months of my life unemployed and uninsured during a global pandemic in order to study for an exam that I cannot take on exam day because of racist technology,” he said.

Asked about experiences like Ms. Beaubrun’s and Mr. Khan’s, Nici Sandberg, a spokeswoman for ExamSoft, said “the vast majority of those who have attempted to complete a mock exam have successfully done so. We’re working around the clock to ensure a successful exam experience for all bar candidates.”


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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.



The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.


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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.



The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.


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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.



As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.


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