Students at a high school in Seoul read a notice with information about an upcoming SAT exam in November 2012.  (EPA/YONHAP)

More than a week before the SAT was given to students in Asia on Saturday, Jan. 24,  some if not all of the questions on two versions of the exam given that day were posted online, and a week in advance of the exam, a U.S. nonprofit organization known as FairTest received a PDF of one of the SAT test forms.

Test proctors, counselors and other sources in Asia, as well as FairTest, which advocates against the misuse of standardized tests, reported that two versions of the SAT appear to have been given in Asia on Jan. 24, both with questions recycled from previous SATs. The sources say that it appears that the test used in Hong Kong and Singapore last Saturday had previously been given in Asia in June 2014 and in North America in June 2013, while students in South Korea appear to have been given a test last Saturday that had been used at international sites in October 2012 and in November 2010 in North America.

The College Board, which owns the SAT, and the Educational Testing Service, which administers the SAT, are known to use tests overseas that have already been given in North America. This practice has opened a window for a sophisticated system of cheating that has plagued the SAT internationally for years.

The College Board was forced to withhold some scores on the SAT in Asia in October, November and December  because of allegations that some students cheated, but this problem didn’t start in 2014. Among earlier actions, the College Board canceled the May 2013 administration of the SAT and SAT Subject tests in South Korea because of a leak of questions. The ETS  said earlier this month that it was aware before the Jan. 24 administration of the exam of reports that the test had already been compromised.

The College Board has repeatedly refused to release specific information about cheating, including the number of scores that have been withheld and then invalidated because of confirmed cheating. On Jan. 25, the day after the test was given in Asia, Zach Goldberg, the director of external communications for the College Board, said the College Board could not reveal its test administration schedule or any information that could “aid anyone seeking an advantage.”

On Jan. 23, the day before the last administration of the test in Asia, Goldberg wrote in an e-mail:

The College Board and Educational Testing Service (ETS), our global test administration and security provider, are committed to ensuring all students have access to a fair testing environment and to fulfilling our responsibility to deliver test scores with integrity to colleges and universities. A vital part of that responsibility is identifying, stopping and mitigating against security breaches.

It is important to clarify some elements to better inform a discussion about exam security.

*   What is “cheating?”

This question might be better framed as “what does it mean for students to gain an unfair advantage?” Some students may unknowingly receive stolen exam materials from private preparation instructors while other students may actively and unethically seek to secure test materials in advance. Our procedures are specifically designed to prevent and detect the various ways students may gain an unfair advantage.

 *   How are you preventing and detecting attempts to gain an unfair advantage? We have a comprehensive approach focusing on different aspects of testing, including:

o   Security of test materials prior to and during the exam administration, including delivery and storage procedures and rules for access;

o   Test day administration protocols including sign-in requirements, scripts, testing room access, protocols for seating, and procedures for monitoring examinee behavior;

o   Documented and standardized methods for reporting irregularities before, during and after the administration;

o   Training and certification of test center staff to ensure they identify and stop cheating on test day;

o   Test center audits and evaluations;

o   Post-assessment statistical analyses to identify potential issues; and

o   Onsite investigations of reported irregularities

 

*   How do you define “test score integrity?”

Test score integrity drives everything we do. Our responsibility is to deliver valid scores to colleges and universities – even when doing so takes additional time. Our procedures have been designed to be responsive to the overwhelming feedback we have received from our higher education members. We take seriously any reported violations of our test administration and security policies, and we delay the release of scores when we find that further analysis is required to validate them. When we do release scores to colleges and universities, it is because we have confidence that the scores are valid and reliable.

As organizations and individuals attempt new ways of illegally obtaining and sharing test materials for their own profit or benefit, we consistently enhance our test security measures. The information we obtain from investigations and administrative reviews is critical to preventing future security breaches.

While disclosing specific details about our investigations or security measures would compromise their effectiveness, our enhanced efforts are making an impact. We have refined our detection measures, taken deliberate steps that have thwarted cheating, and have taken swift and effective action – including this month – to address alleged breaches.

We understand and share the frustration of students and their families when the illegal activities of certain organizations and individuals cause score delays. But the College Board is unwavering in our commitment to ensuring the accuracy and integrity of the exam scores we deliver to colleges and universities.

What is missing from that list is a discussion of why the College Board and ETS use tests overseas that have already been given. At least a week before the Jan. 24, 2015, administration of the SAT in Asia, FairTest had been sent questions that were on both forms believed to have been given on that day.

Bob Schaeffer, public education director of the nonprofit National Center for Fair & Open Testing, known as FairTest, said in an e-mail:

“The still unanswered big questions are: Why do the test-makers continue reusing old exams when they know that some test-takers will be able to access the questions in advance? How much would it really cost these companies, which take in hundreds of millions each year, to use completely fresh test forms in Asia? Does the current practice of recycling old exams put honest test-takers in the U.S. and in Asia at an unfair disadvantage because they have to compete for selective admissions with students who cheat?”

How does the cheating scam work? Pieced together by FairTest from reports by counselors and test prep company employees in China and South Korea, here’s how it is done:

— Test prep companies have employees or partners 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 collegeconfidential.com. Some even take the tests themselves.

— Test prep firms overseas 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). Such test-prep “services” are heavily advertised on Chinese language websites such as Taobao, QQ and Wechat.

— On SAT day, the firms have people 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. The firms consult their database and identify 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.

Why would anybody pay test prep companies for this material when it turns up online for free? Schaeffer said that many students, particularly in developing countries, don’t know what is out there for free, and they might not trust material posted anonymously on a public Internet site, which is generally a good caution. He said that many people mistakenly believe that pricier products must be better.

Schaeffer said in an e-mail:

“The College Board and Educational Testing Service continue to enable test cheating by recycling previously administered SATs in Asia. This is the height of corporate irresponsibility, since it is widely known that old exam forms are easy to access, particularly for those with the money to pay unscrupulous “test coaching” companies.”