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New allegations of an SAT security breach, this time on a U.S. test

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SAT cheating investigations this school year have centered in Asia, where student scores have been withheld in October, November, December and January. Now there’s a new facet to the scandal: Along with allegations of cheating in Asia on the May exam, questions have been raised about a security breach of the SAT that hundreds of thousands of students took in the United States on May 2.

On May 1, two versions of an SAT exam were e-mailed separately to me and to FairTest, a nonprofit organization that advocates against the misuse of high-stakes standardized tests. The exams were purported to be the tests American students were to take across the United States the following day, on May 2, and possibly by some students in Asia.

It is not known definitively if what was sent was an entire “live” form of the test, but FairTest, or the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, has since confirmed that many of the questions on the versions we received were on the May 2 test given in the United States. Bob Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest, said that while it is unclear how many students had access to the test beforehand, “anyone who used that document to prep for the May 2 test would have had a leg up due to prior knowledge.”

Students in Asia also took the SAT on May 2. SAT cheating in Asia has in the past focused on Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong, and in those places, sources in Asia say, the May 2 SAT appears to have had the same questions as SATs given in the United States  in November 2013 and again in December 2014. Schaeffer said that sources in Asia report that some test-prep companies there were selling questions used on the May 2 test weeks before it was administered.

It also appears that the same versions of the SAT given in the United States on May 2 may have also been given that same day in parts of Asia (where recycled exams were not given), the sources said.

I asked Tom Ewing, director of external affairs at the Educational Testing Service, about the security concerns in Asia and the United States. The ETS administers the SAT for the College Board, which owns the exam. Ewing sent this in an e-mail:

We are aware of reports regarding the May administration and are working to determine if score holds will be necessary. Any affected test-takers will be notified by ETS prior to the planned score release date of May 21. We understand and share the frustration of students and their families when the illegal activities of certain organizations and individuals cause score delays.
Our responsibility is to deliver valid scores to colleges and universities – even when doing so takes additional time. These procedures have been designed to be responsive to the feedback we have received from College Board higher education members. We released the majority of the scores that were held for review following the previous international administrations. When we do release scores to colleges and universities, it is because we have confidence that the scores are valid and reliable.

The College Board and ETS have declined to release specific information about cheating, including the number of scores that have been withheld and then invalidated because of confirmed cheating, and the countries where cheating has occurred. The organizations also will not say whether all scores have been released from the past five SAT administrations or what is being done about widespread, oft-corroborated reports that advance test forms circulate in Asia. The College Board does not inform colleges if a student is confirmed to have cheated; it simply invalidates the score.

Schaeffer said in an e-mail:

We do not know how broadly this information was circulated before exam day. However, anyone who had similar access to these items enjoyed a huge leg up due to prior knowledge of the SAT’s contents. This global security breach calls into question the validity of all SAT scores on the May 2 exam: There is simply no way to tell which test-takers might have have seen questions at least a day in advance. The failure of the College Board and Educational Testing Service, the SAT’s owner and administrator, to ensure a level playing field is yet another reason for colleges and scholarship agencies to stop relying on the test to evaluate applicants from the U.S. and around the globe.

The two SAT versions that FairTest and I received on May 1 both started with the same writing prompt — but after that the sections are in a different order (e.g. Sections 2 and 5 are reversed in the two versions) and the two forms have different Experimental Sections, which are unscored items that the College Board uses to develop new SAT questions. (This practice effectively turns test-takers into “guinea pigs” for test companies who are testing out new questions for later exams.)  Scores from the May 2 SAT are scheduled to be released May 21.

If the versions of the SAT that FairTest and I received  May 1 were the actual tests, it is not known where the security breach occurred. It was apparently obtained in Asia, the center of the international testing scandal, where it is believed some of this version were administered  May 2. The person who sent it, who has requested anonymity, has provided accurate information on cheating in the past and who is involved in the testing process.

Using recycled questions is a standard practice of the College Board and the Educational Testing Service, and this has opened a window for a sophisticated system of cheating that has plagued the SAT internationally for years. For example, 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 College Board withheld some student scores on the SAT given in Asia in October, November, December and January  because of allegations that some students cheated. The ETS acknowledged that it was aware before the Jan. 24 administration of the exam that there were reports that the test had been compromised. In fact, well over a week before the SAT was given to students in Asia on that date, some if not all of the questions on two versions of the exam given that day were posted online. What’s more, a week before the exam, FairTest received a PDF of one of the SAT test forms.

Last October, when it became known that some scores from that month’s administration of the exam overseas were being withheld, Fiona Rees, president of the Overseas Association for College Admission Counseling, wrote in an e-mail to a Post reporter that she learned of “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.” She added: “The student had the entire test with answers and essay already completed.”

How is test security breached? An elaborate scam by test-prep companies in Asia has been operating for years (see details below) but it now appears that there are various mechanisms used to breach College Board/ETS test security and obtain test items — days, not just hours, in advance.  One possibility is break-ins during the test form delivery process, either physically or electronically.

I’ve published this before, but here again is the “time-zone” cheating scam, as pieced together from various sources by FairTest:

  • 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 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 Web sites 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 cellphones or loading it on programmable calculators that students are allowed to use in the test center.

Many Chinese students have to travel outside mainland China to take the SAT. Zach Goldberg,  director of external communications for the College Board, said earlier this year in an e-mail that according to guidelines set by China’s Ministry of Education, the SAT is  only administered within schools authorized by the ministry to offer international admissions tests to their enrolled students. These are primarily international schools that typically enroll students who hold passports from countries outside of the People’s Republic of China. Chinese national students who do not attend one of these schools and are interested in taking the SAT must leave the Chinese mainland and travel to SAT testing centers in Hong Kong, Macao or elsewhere.