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College Board sued over allegedly recycled SAT test questions

The SAT was administered in June at Woodrow Wilson High School in the District. (Nick Anderson/The Washington Post)

Here we go again: a new SAT cheating scandal — but this time, there's a bit of a twist and a lawsuit.

On April 20, 2016, I wrote a post about cheating on the SAT that started this way:

For years now, there have been repeated scandals about students cheating on the SAT, the college admissions test. The College Board, which owns the test, has said that things would be different with the newly redesigned SAT, which premiered in March. That, it turns out, was wishful thinking.

It still is.

A class-action lawsuit was just filed in U.S. District Court in Florida by the father of a student who took the SAT on Aug. 25. Students reported the test included questions that had appeared on a 2017 SAT administered in Asia and that had been put on social media.

How the SAT and PSAT collect personal data on students — and what the College Board does with it

The lawsuit, filed by the Nussbaum Law Group in New York City and Criden & Love in Miami, is against the College Board, which owns the SAT, and the Educational Testing Service, which administers the SAT. Both are nonprofits that operate like businesses.

The lawsuit alleges that the College Board breached its “fiduciary duty by recycling old exam questions, including those that have been publicly disseminated prior to the SAT exam.” And it says further:

Rather than accept the responsibility and acknowledge its errors, the College Board, and by association, ETS, appear to blame students for their failure to keep the exam secure.

The suit does not name the student or father but seeks restitution in an unspecified amount for anyone affected in the same way. It asks that any financial awards be determined at trial, and that attorney fees and costs be paid by the College Board and ETS. It says the plaintiff's child is a high school student who took the SAT in St. Petersburg, Fla., where the family lives, and it cost $64.50 to take it.

The College Board released this statement:

In response to theft and organized cheating, which affect all high stakes testing, we have significantly increased our test security efforts and resources. This is a persistent problem, but one that we are making progress in combating.
We are reviewing the complaint and will respond accordingly. Our focus remains on reinforcing our comprehensive approach to test security. 
In recent years, we have bolstered our security efforts by adding to our test security team, and their expertise has led to innovations in preventing and combating cheating. Efforts include producing more test content, banning and collecting cell phones, employing lock boxes, conducting new data-driven analyses of test taker behaviors, and enhancing security measures at test centers. After every test administration, we take additional quality control steps before scores are released, including conducting comprehensive statistical analyses of certain test scores.
If we determine students have gained an unfair advantage, we will take appropriate actions, including cancelling test scores and, in some cases, prohibiting them from taking another College Board assessment. In all our efforts, we’ve worked to strike a balance between thwarting those few students seeking an unfair advantage and providing testing opportunities for the vast majority of students who play by the rules. We’re doing more today than ever to ensure the test scores we report to colleges are accurate and valid.

The College Board did not respond to an inquiry about reports it had been warned about the security breach before the test was administered Aug 25.

A spokesman for the Educational Testing Service said it had no comment on the lawsuit.

The College Board has been recycling questions on SAT exams for years, prompting repeated cheating episodes, with some scores withheld at virtually every test administration because of suspected security breaches.

Cheating has flourished in Asia through a sophisticated system employed by test prep companies and others and made possible in large part because the College Board reuses questions in Asia that have appeared in the United States, student advocacy groups and counselors say. This has been most common since the SAT was revised two years ago. In the latest episode, however, students reported that some of the questions on the August 2018 SAT given in the United States included questions given in October 2017 in Asia.

The College Board and ACT Inc., which owns the ACT college admissions exam, have repeatedly declined to discuss in detail security breaches or what they are doing to prevent them. Bob Schaeffer, education director of the nonprofit National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a group known as FairTest that advocates against the misuse and abuse of standardized tests, said in a statement:

Though College Board executives continue to turn a blind eye to the problems caused by repeatedly reusing previously administered pencil-and-paper exams -- despite evidence that test content has been quickly compromised after first use -- ACT is at least pursuing a partial "fix."  Of course, ACT's latest, much more expensive computerized exam initiative will be effective only until the first hacker breaks into their test delivery system.
The most recent test security scandals will be a further source of momentum to the test-optional admissions surge.  Already this spring and summer, more than a dozen schools (including the University of Chicago and several state university campuses) have dropped their ACT/SAT exam requirements.  These institutions recognize that test scores provide little if any useful information in the undergraduate admissions process.

The College Board and ACT, which both have nonprofit status with the U.S. government, earn millions of dollars annually from their testing and other programs; both pay high salaries to top executives. Their overseas testing has faced security problems for years, mostly in Asia, which prompted cancellations of tests or the rescinding of scores.

Last October, the International Association for College Admission Counseling, which represents nearly 3,000 school counselors globally, issued a statement rebuking the College Board and ACT Inc. for their handling of the exams. The statement said the counselors had a “lack of confidence” in the testing giants, noting that they frequently canceled tests in countries at the last moment and then failed to communicate in a timely fashion.

Last year, the September ACT was canceled in numerous countries two days before it was to be administered because of a security breach. In January 2016, hours before students at sites in China and Macau were scheduled to take the SAT, the College Board canceled the test because of a security breach, and SAT scores have been withheld from some students at virtually every SAT administration in Asia for years. Scores from the entire May 2013 administration of the SAT and SAT Subject Tests in South Korea were canceled because of a leak of questions.

Cheating rackets have been flourishing for years in Asia and tracked by FairTest. Test-prep companies have sent people to the United States to take the exams and memorize them or obtain them illegally, FairTest and counselors say. They also monitor chat boards — including the website College Confidential — where students post questions from tests they have just taken.

On SAT days, these firms have people sit for the test at Asian sites in time zones several hours ahead, memorize questions and take a “bathroom break” to call or text questions that can be emailed to clients or loaded on calculators that students use at other test centers, FairTest and counselors says.

A few years ago, the Reuters news service published a series of articles about security issues with the SAT and ACT and reported that the SAT has been compromised in Asia far more often than acknowledged. Reuters reported that at least five times in recent years, U.S. high school students took SAT tests that included questions widely available online more than a year earlier.