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An account of exactly how students cheated on SAT in Asia

On Wednesday, the Educational Testing Service said it had withheld the scores from the test for students in Korea and China because of allegations of cheating. In its statement, it strongly denounced organizations that work to get copies of the test in advance and then pass them on to students for a profit — a problem that has existed with the administration of the SAT in Asia for years. Just last year, there were two episodes of suspected cheating, one in October involving allegations in Korea that questions from earlier tests were obtained by “cram schools” and given to students before they took the exam. And in May 2013, the College Board canceled the May 2013 administration of the SAT and SAT Subject Tests throughout South Korea because of a leak of test questions — the first time the test had been canceled in an entire country.

How can this happen? According to Bob Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending the misuse of high-stakes standardized tests,  SAT tests given at international sites are “almost always” repeats of exams administered previously in the United States but not publicly released.

It is not clear how many countries and how many students are involved in the latest SAT security breaches — or what it means for the validity of any of the scores that resulted in Asia from the Oct. 11 SAT. Counselors at international schools have been communicating with each other in recent weeks about various allegations of cheating on the SAT, not only in Korea and China but also in Japan, Thailand and perhaps other countries as well. Ffiona Rees, president of the Overseas Association for College Admission Counseling (OACAC), wrote in an e-mail:

From what I understand from our Facebook group, there were several cases where our members (not in China or Korea) found significant instances of student fraud — including a student with entire pages of the SAT scanned on the phone. The student had the entire test with answers and essay already completed. In each case, the test center tried to contact the College Board but according to one post “test centers do not have phone support in this time zone (Asia) during testing hours to help advise or disseminate information.”
I’ve since heard that some of the students at these test centers have had their results (I assume the students who helped catch the cheaters), and that students with addresses in Chinese or Korean addresses are being held.

Asked about allegations in countries beyond Korea and China, ETS corporate spokesman Tom Ewing said in an e-mail: “There are always allegations and we conduct regular reviews after every administration to ensure all scores are valid.  As always, should we discover any misconduct, we reserve the right to take any actions, including cancelling scores before or after they are released.”

Here’s an account about a cheating incident from Joachim Ekstrom, high school counselor at NIST International School in Bangkok, Thailand. He wrote in an e-mail that he sent this to the ETS and College Board. He wrote:

I have always felt that it is our responsibility as a World IB School to serve the wider community in Bangkok and offer seats to students that wouldn’t be able to take the SAT tests in Thailand otherwise. The College Board simply doesn’t have enough centers here. We have the facility and staff needed to do this. On Saturday we tested 130 students. I am not happy to serve test preparation centers in China though. This is certainly organized crime. The 10 Chinese students that tested at our center this Saturday all sat in the same row. They had consecutive registration numbers. This indicates that they were registered by one person, probably an officer at a Chinese  test preparation center. Included in the test preparation center’s package is probably also visa application, plane ticket, and the option of getting the test answers sent to your mobile phone in the morning before the test. I am sure these guys make a lot of money. They are probably also represented in several countries across the time zones.
The test-taker that was caught had her iPhone hidden under her sport jacket. When we collected students’ phones before the testing began, she said that she had given her phone to her mother in the morning. We don’t strip-search test-takers, so it is impossible to know if they have a phone hidden in their clothes. Her mistake was that she checked the notes on her phone during testing, and one of the proctors noticed it. As I searched her phone I saw that it was full of messages including the day’s “correct” test answers for each section. These messages were sent from her friends and a person called BlueOcean, who according to the test-taker, is her teacher at the test preparation center in China. She further said that the answers were taken from a test given earlier that day in Australia.
I tried to call the TAS International phone number given in the SAT Supervisor Manual, but got to talk to an answering machine only. This is certainly a flaw that needs to be corrected. There is nobody who can answer your call outside office hours. I realized that I uncovered an organized crime, and I needed some guidance. Having a look the content of the test-taker’s phone, and following up on the contact information of the people who distribute the test answers would obviously be extremely valuable for the College Board. I didn’t feel that I have legal rights to keep her phone, and I certainly don’t want to be the person that makes the decision. Considering the scope of this, I am sure it wouldn’t be too much of a hassle to have someone on stand-by who can answer the phone and give guidance in case of an emergency when the tests are administered around the world.
I also recommend that the ETS includes a standardized form in the SAT package sent to test-centers where it is stated that the test-taker’s unauthorized device is confiscated due to a fraudulent situation and that it will be returned by courier or post after the content has been investigated. The form can then be signed by the supervisor and the test-taker. I would feel more comfortable confiscating a test-takers device this way.
I feel sorry for the test-takers that come prepared to take the tests in an honest way, and who deserve a standardized, quiet and relaxed setting. I also want to say that we haven’t seen this kind of cheating among test-takers in Thailand. They try to work over time sometimes, and go back to previous sections to make changes based on recommendations from their friends during the break, but that’s about it.

Concern about cheating on the Oct. 11 administration of the SAT in Asia was raised days before the test was given, according to Schaeffer.  On Oct. 8, 2014, FairTest got an anonymous tip about cheating that included what the sender claimed to be a copy of the December 2013 SAT that was supposedly going to be administered at international sites Oct. 11. He said FairTest tried to confirm the claims but could not.