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The six-step SAT cheating operation in Asia — and how to stop it


New allegations of cheating on the SAT administered in Asia on Nov. 8 have been made even as concerns are growing that plans are underway for cheating on the exam scheduled for Dec. 6.

The Educational Testing Service, which administers the SAT around the world for the owner of the exam, the College Board, is about to wrap up its investigation into allegations of cheating on the exam given in Asia in October, according to Tom Ewing, director of external relations at ETS. Students in South Korea and China who took the October exam had their scores delayed because of the allegations and investigation, even as new allegations about cheating on the Nov. 8 exam began to roll in. Ewing said in an e-mail:

… we get e-mails and phone calls after each and every administration and November is no exception. In each case we investigate the inquiries thoroughly and if we determine there is validity to the allegations, we broaden our review and take appropriate action.
We are currently concluding our administrative review of the October administration in Korea and China. Based on specific, reliable information we have already released some scores, including to most students who took the exam in Korea, while continuing our analysis of other scores.

This issue of cheating on the SAT in some Asian countries has been a problem for the College Board and ETS for years.  In 2013, the October administration of the SAT led to allegations in South Korea that questions from earlier tests were obtained by “cram schools” and given to students before they took the exam. And 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.

But while the ETS is investigating allegations of cheating this fall in South Korea and China, test proctors in other places, including Japan and Thailand, have alleged instances of cheating.

Now, Bob Schaeffer, public education director of the nonprofit National Center for Fair & Open Testing, known as FairTest, said his organization has received information suggesting that some people are planning to cheat in the SAT being given on Dec. 6 in Asia (more than 10,000 will sit for the test in Hong Kong alone).

How do people cheat? Here’s what Schaeffer said in an e-mail,  information assembled from more than a dozen sources in China and South Korea, including some who work in test prep centers:

— Confederates in the United States obtain recently administered SAT exams, including those that are officially “undisclosed,” either by copying illegally obtained test forms or compiling content from information about individual items shared on chat boards such as
— Overseas “test prep” companies maintain complete databases of questions and correct answers from previously administered tests. They use these to train their regular clients (also illegal if they use questions that have not been disclosed).
— Prior to each exam, some test-takers contract with these firms to provide the answers to that day’s SAT. Such “services” are heavily advertised on Chinese language websites such as Taobao, QQ and Wechat.
— On SAT day, hired guns sit for the test at Asian sites in time zones several hours ahead of China (e.g. Auckland, New Zealand is five hours ahead of Beijing), memorize the first few items, then take a “bathroom break,” from which they call or text that information to their superiors.
— Based on this advance warning, the “test prep” company consults its database and identifies the test being administered in China later that day.
— A list of correct answers is then transmitted to paying clients by simple technologies, such as emailing the file to their cell phones or loading it on programmable calculators that students are allowed to use in the test center.

Schaeffer said that “given the large amounts of money some students’ families allegedly pay for this advance knowledge (as much as ‘tens of thousands of dollars,’ according to several sources), this cheating operation is quite unsophisticated and relatively low-cost.” Here, he said, are three steps that could easily disrupt this cheating operation if the College Board and ETS were to adopt them:

— Stop reusing previously administered tests in Asia — in the age of micro-cameras and the Internet, “previously undisclosed” test content does not exist.
— Make a more serious effort to confiscate cellphones and similar devices when students enter the testing center.
— Require test-takers to demonstrate that they have cleared the memory on all programmable calculators.

Ending the practice of using previously administered tests in Asia would require the creation of many more exams, which would cost a lot.

The ETS did not respond to questions about whether it has considered stopping using previously administered tests.