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For third straight month, cheating alleged on SAT given in Asia

Students take the SAT in Seoul on Nov. 13, 2014. (Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

(Update: New comment from College Board)

It happened in October, again in November, and now in December. Test proctors in Asia are reporting that students who took the SAT on Dec. 6 told them that they knew the questions on the exam before it was given, providing them with an unfair advantage over those who did not cheat.

Proctors said that the Dec. 6 SAT given in China, South Korea and other countries was leaked online early, and that after students took the test, they reported that the questions were identical to ones from the March 2014 SAT given in the United States.

It is commonplace for the College Board, which owns the SAT, and the Educational Testing Service, which administers the test for the College Board, to use versions of the test in Asia that were previously given in the United States. Students in Asia are able to obtain the test questions in advance through a multi-step process that you can read about here. In some cases, test preparation entities get the questions in advance by having compatriots take the SAT in the United States and memorize or illegally take photos of the exams — and charge big fees to students. In other cases, Asian students who know the test has already been given in the United States check on a Web site called College Confidential on which students sometimes write about SAT questions after taking the exam. Then, as one proctor, who asked to remain anonymous, explained in an e-mail:

Students told me that they used College Confidential to discern the answers to previous exams and many private tutors and public testing centers compile what is called a “key king,” or a booklet containing all of the answers to the critical reading sections of previous exams. When a key king is compiled from college confidential the students do not have the actual test paper, but they know the answers and the subject of the critical reading sections. Students who memorized the key king reported that they recognized the critical reading sections on Saturday’s SAT I exam and were able to match the questions on the exams with the key king answers they had memorized.

The SAT is owned by the College Board, which contracts with the Educational Testing Service to administer the exam around the world. Old versions of the SAT given in the United States are used overseas because the expense of designing new tests is high, test experts say. After allegations of cheating on the October 2014 administration of the SAT in several Asian countries, the ETS opened an investigation and determined that some students had in fact cheated. Their scores were cancelled. Another probe was opened in November after cheating allegations were made following the administration of the exam then. During the probes, students’ scores are withheld, making it difficult for a number of students who wanted to use the scores to apply to U.S. colleges early admission. The ETS  probes have focused on allegations of cheating in South Korea and China but test proctors in other places, including Japan and Thailand, have alleged instances of cheating as well.

This year’s cheating troubles follow similar ones last year. 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.

The College Board and ETS were aware of concerns that there would be cheating on the Dec. 6 administration of the exam in Asia. Shortly before the December test, I asked them about the cheating fears and Zach Goldberg, director of external communications of the College Board, wrote in an e-mail:

The College Board and ETS are committed to ensuring a fair testing environment for students. We have made great strides in improving our security measures over the past several years, yet we know more can still be done. Together we are actively working to find additional ways to prevent cheating and to ensure that those individuals who breach security protocols are held accountable.
We do not have any additional information to provide about this weekend’s international SAT administration.

Goldberg, asked Monday about the cheating allegations for the Dec. 6 administration of the SAT, said in an e-mail:

As you know, we take seriously any reported violations of our test administration and security policies. ETS investigates any and all allegations of misconduct reported to them and will take the necessary actions to ensure test security and the validity of the scores, including cancelling scores, if necessary.
As I emailed last week, over the past two years, the College Board and ETS have taken significant steps to combat a wide range of cheating.  In addition to on-site investigations, to further safeguard the security of the exams and the validity of the scores, we have increased the ways in which we verify a test-taker’s identity, reduced the number of administrations available in certain areas, enhanced on-site security measures in some test centers and closed others entirely.
We cannot provide additional information about this weekend’s international SAT administration at this time.

Bob Schaeffer, public education director of the nonprofit National Center for Fair & Open Testing, known as FairTest, said the continuing cheating on the SAT and the inability or refusal of the College Board and the ETS to find ways to stop it are inexcusable. FairTest has for months received a number of e-mails from students, tutors and proctors from around Asia explaining how cheating is conducted. He said in an e-mail:

The failure of the College Board and ETS to halt their practice of reusing previously administered SAT exams in Asia in the face of overwhelming evidence that the contents were widely circulated in advance amounts to gross negligence ethically if not legally.  Their continued irresponsibility guarantees that some test-takers in Asia had a huge advantage from prior knowledge of test items.
The test-makers’ (lack of) response is all too similar to the disregard they initially paid to claims of SAT cheating on Long Island several years ago.  It was only when school officials and the local District Attorney forced the issue that the College Board and ETS conducted a real investigation, exposed an impersonation ring, and developed new policies to stop that particular form of cheating (i.e. photo identification)

Schaeffer confirmed that tests leaked recently on Chinese Web sites were identical to the tests students said they took Dec. 6.

So what happens to those students found to have cheated in one of these probes? Not much.  As I reported in a previous post, Tom Ewing, director of external affairs at the Educational Testing Service, said in an e-mail that a confirmed cheater’s scores are cancelled but that the schools to which he or she is applying are not notified. Furthermore, they are permitted to take the SAT again. Why? That’s a question the ETS and the College Board haven’t answered yet.

Meanwhile, Chinese authorities have apprehended a few thousand students for cheating on a national pharmacy exam, according to state television as reported by the South Morning China Post. Some 2,440 students were caught cheating on the Licensed Pharmacy Test in Xian, capital of Shaanxi Province. The students were caught when Shaanxi Radio Monitoring Station discovered radio signals on an illegal channel during the testing that were determined to be part of a sophisticated way of cheating.