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Honor Roll Directories A Scam, Honig Charges

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Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig of California has launched an assault on "honor roll'' student-recognition publications that, he charges, dupe students and parents into buying "basically a worthless product.''

At a July 15 news conference, Mr. Honig accused three companies of carrying out an "honorscam'' swindle. The companies disguise themselves as education groups devoted to recognizing high-school students and providing scholarships, he charged, but in reality are only "using education as an excuse to make a buck.''

Mr. Honig's targets were Outstanding Students of America, based in Washington, the United States Achievement Academy, of Lexington, Ky., and the National Honor Roll, of Los Angeles.

An official of one of the three firms last week denied Mr. Honig's charges. The Los Angeles company, according to California officials, is no longer in operation.

Many Publications Available

Those companies and others publish directories honoring students for academic achievement, both over all and in specific subject areas, as well as for participation in cheerleading, band, and athletics. The industry is a growing one, according to Mr. Honig, with a vast array of publications.

Most of the companies operate in a similar fashion, the California investigation found. They inform students, whose names have been suggested by schools, teachers, counselors, or past honorees, that they are part of a select group to be honored.

The companies charge little or nothing to include a student's name and biography in the honor directory or yearbook. Instead, they urge the student's parents or grandparents to buy the publication, at prices ranging from $29 to about $35. They may also offer to publish the student's photograph for an additional fee, or sell pins, plaques, mugs, and other mementos.

The companies' promotional literature often implies that students will benefit from inclusion in the yearbook, Mr. Honig said, particularly in the college-admissions process.

A letter promoting the high-school directory published by Outstanding Students of America, for example, states that the company distributes its directories to major colleges and corporations. "These schools and companies will then have access to a valuable resource for helping them enroll and/or employ superior candidates,'' the letter says.

Admissions Aid?

That claim is disputed, however, by Mr. Honig and a number of other educators.
"I had always assumed most of these were on the up and up and these books were used by people in higher education,'' Mr. Honig said. "But these are not used by the colleges. They prey upon the natural inclinations of parents to try and help their kids out.''

To check the value of the directories, Mr. Honig's department polled admissions directors at all public higher-education institutions in California. None of those responding indicated that a listing would improve a student's chances for admission.

That opinion seems to be shared by many college admissions counselors.

"We're not going to check that book,'' said John Bunnell, director of freshman admissions at Stanford University. "We receive complimentary copies, but we don't refer to them. It's not very meaningful to be one of 20,000 names in a book. There are just too many other more important factors to consider.''

Said Nanette H. Clift, assistant director of admissions at Washington University in St. Louis: "It's not impressive in and of itself. We don't look down upon it, but I'm not sure it lends any weight.''

The promise of assistance in getting into college may have an especially strong appeal to students from immigrant and minority-group families, Mr. Honig observed. He noted that the directories appear to include unusually large numbers of such students. Many of the immigrant families come from countries in which under-the-table payments to a "fixer'' for college admission is common, he said.

Honorary Advisors Questioned

The outspoken California school chief said he began probing the industry after an inquiry last year from a San Diego couple about the credentials of the Academic All American program, a product of the U.S. Achievement Academy.

Officials of the state education department found that some of the claims made by the company could not be substantiated.

For instance, the academy listed an "honorary committee'' made up of a former Kentucky governor, a NASA astronaut, and a number of prominent educators. But several committee members told California officials they had not agreed to use of their names, while others authorized it in the belief that the academy was a nonprofit organization.

'We Are Not a Scam'

George Stevens, executive director of the United States Achievement Academy, last week acknowledged some of the discrepancies cited by Mr. Honig. He also indicated a willingness to label more clearly his organization as a for-profit company in future solicitations.

But Mr. Stevens, who said he was a former teacher and dentist, contended that "we are not a scam, we are a private educational organization that has honored over 3 million students free of charge and granted over $200,000 worth of scholarships.''

The U.S. Achievement Academy and similar companies emphasize that they provide scholarship money to some of the students selected for their publications. Mr. Honig does not dispute that claim, but he said it is difficult to determine what percentage of company profits goes to scholarships.

Mr. Stevens said that in the last three years, his company's profit has been "less than 5 percent.''

'Vanity Press'

Mr. Honig did not criticize one of the best-known publications in the field, Who's Who Among American High School Students. An aide to Mr. Honig described its publisher, Educational Communications Inc., as being more open in acknowledging its for-profit nature.

The National Association of Secondary School Principals, however, takes a more critical view of all of the for-profit recognition publications. In its annual advisory list of recommended contests and activities, the association says that "mere inclusion in such a publication is of little or no value'' for students.

"We consider them to be the vanity press,'' said Scott D. Thomson, executive director of the principals' group. "The kid's name is put in there, and the uncles and aunts all think its wonderful, but it's a scam.''

That was disputed by a spokesman for Educational Communications. Who's Who listed 540,000 students in its latest annual directory, making it the largest student-recognition publication in the country, said Michael J. Sadowski.

"It is made very clear to Who's Who nominees that it is not contingent on their laying out any money to buy a book to get their name in,'' he said. "The rationale is to give them national recognition.''

Selection Criteria

Critics have focused on the criteria used by the publications for selecting students. The principals' association says the standards are vague and ambiguous.

"Even when clearly stated, the sponsoring organization is unlikely to be able to verify that students actually measure up to the selection criteria since nominations come from a variety of sources,'' the association warns.

That assessment is backed up by a letter cited by Mr. Honig. In it, a Kansas father complains that his daughter was selected as a superior college student by Outstanding Students of America.

If the company had checked his daughter's academic record, the father explained, it would have found that she was involved in no extracurricular activities, had dropped one course, failed another, got no grade better than a C, and dropped out before the end of her freshman year.

Outstanding Students of America says in its literature that it draws names from dean's lists, scholarship winners, news articles about students, and nominations from previous honorees. To qualify for membership, students must have at least a B-minus average and demonstrate involvement in extracurricular activities.

Officials of the firms say they commonly ask teachers and counselors to nominate students. They also obtain class rankings from schools.

Mr. Honig said the companies apparently have not violated California law. But he has issued a legal advisory to all district superintendents and middle- and high-school principals, warning them not to release information about grades to directory companies.

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