The consequences of cheating on the SAT or ACT

Monday, March 29, 2010

What happens to students who cheat on the SAT and the ACT? Not as much as you might think. It isn't particularly easy to cheat on the college admissions exams, but that doesn't stop some students from trying.

They do it in ways you might imagine: copying someone else, texting on a cellphone for answers, bringing in cheat sheets, having someone else take the test for them.

But some cheat in ways you might not consider. In South Korea, a test-prep tutor was investigated on suspicion of buying scanned copies of sections of the SAT and e-mailing them, with answers, to South Koreans in Connecticut scheduled to take the test 12 hours later.

Another tutor in South Korea was arrested for getting students to put SAT questions into a calculator they were allowed to use. The students also hid small blades in their erasers, which they used to cut pages out of the test.

So, you ask, what happens to students suspected of cheating on the SAT or the ACT?

I asked the College Board, which owns the SAT, and ACT Inc., which owns the ACT, to explain what triggers suspicion of cheating and what happens to cheaters.

Ed Colby, spokesman for the ACT, said he couldn't tell me exactly how many investigations are conducted each year, for security reasons. Tom Ewing, a spokesman for the Educational Testing Service, which administers the SAT for the College Board, said there are a few thousand questionable scores each year out of more than 2 million tests.

Both said a review could be triggered in several ways, including through an audit that flags scores that have risen dramatically, or by a tip from an outside party, such as a guidance counselor, college admissions officer or NCAA official.

Test supervisors also report any irregularities from the day of the exam. And both organizations have anonymous hotlines that anyone can call with information about breaches in test security.

In some cases, handwriting experts will be called in to check whether the writing on the exam matches other work by the test-taker.

Sometimes, the student is able to answer the questions, and the case is closed. Other times, a student is given several options:

-- Retake the SAT or the ACT free of charge.

For the ACT, if the new composite score is at most 3 points lower than the original scores, the disputed scores are deemed valid, Colby said.

Ewing didn't say how close the new SAT score had to be for the questioned score to be accepted. But the score has to jump a few hundred points to be challenged in the first place, he said.

-- Provide an explanation and documentation of how the scores jumped.

-- Cancel the scores, which is not considered by the ACT or ETS as an admission of guilt. These organizations can also decide unilaterally to nullify scores and notify the student (who may then request arbitration from an independent party) as well as the schools that received the scores. But -- and this is a big but -- the schools aren't told why the scores were canceled.

In fact, both organizations tell the schools that there are a lot of reasons why scores are canceled, including a student's illness or disturbances at the test center.

A student can cheat and get caught. But the college or university that has accepted him or her won't find out from the ETS or the ACT.

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