On Oct. 31, 2014, Time magazine ran a story with this headline: “Think You Can Cheat on the SAT? The College Board Says Think Again.”  Really? Consider:

*Last week, a federal grand jury indicted 15 Chinese nationals in a scheme in which they paid up to $6,000 for other people in the United States to take the SAT, the GRE, and other college and graduate school standardized entrance exams  for them to help them gain entry into U.S. universities. They were charged in a conspiracy to defraud the College Board, which owns the tests, and the Educational Testing Service, which administers the tests. According to the indictment, “The conspirators had counterfeit Chinese passports made and sent to the United States, which were used by the imposters to defraud ETS administrators into believing that they were other people, namely the conspirators who would receive the benefit of the imposter’s test score for use at American colleges and universities.” Some of the defendants actually won admissions to U.S. schools; one was arrested last week at Northeastern University in Boston.

David Hickton, the U.S. attorney for the District of Western Pennsylvania, where most of the tests were taken, said in this New York Times story: “I would not want anyone to be left with the impression that that’s the sole country involved or the scope of it.”

*The ETS is withholding an undetermined number of scores from the May 2 administration of the SAT in Asian and possibly other countries because of cheating concerns. This was not an isolated incident; scores were withheld after every single SAT administration in the 2014-15 school year in Asia amid reports of sophisticated cheating networks in which students obtain questions in advance. This year was not isolated either; the same problem has marred SAT administrations overseas for years. For example, the scores from the entire May 2013 administration of the SAT and SAT Subject tests in South Korea were cancelled because of a leak of questions.

Asked about the scores, Tom Ewing, director of external affairs at the Educational Testing Service, said in an e-mail:

The College Board and its global test administration and security provider, Educational Testing Service (ETS), are dedicated to delivering valid, reliable test scores to colleges and universities. As a matter of course, we employ a range of procedures to prevent violations of our test administration and security policies.
We regularly identify and halt attempts to gain an unfair advantage. When an alleged security incident occurs, we conduct a comprehensive investigation and statistical analyses to determine if a breach has occurred and take the necessary actions to ensure the integrity of that SAT administration.
Over the past year, with more than 4 million test takers around the globe, fewer than 5,000 scores have been cancelled after thorough investigation. Due to a reported test security violation, a small set of scores from the May SAT test are being delayed while we conduct our comprehensive investigation and statistical analyses.
SAT scores may be delayed for a variety of reasons. For each administration, there may be score delays anywhere in the world, including in the United States. The small number of scores delayed in the U.S. for the May 2015 SAT administration is consistent with a typical administration.
Score integrity is critical to the institutions receiving our scores, and following each administration we go to great lengths to confidently report valid scores. When we hold scores, we do so based on investigative actions and ensure that scores are only released once they have been validated through statistical analyses and other measures.
We will continue to enhance our test security measures while keeping the SAT accessible and affordable – a commitment we have made to students across the globe and to our members in higher education.

There are periodic SAT cheating scandals that erupt in the United States – such as one in 2011 in Nassau County, N.Y., where a number of students from a handful of schools were accused of accepting payment or paying others to the the SAT and the ACT college entrance exams. In October 2011, Bernard Kaplan, principal of Great Neck North High School, told a state Senate hearing on the issue that “the procedures ETS uses to give the test are grossly inadequate in terms of security,” according to this New York Times story. College Board and ETS officials say they have improved security since then.

Yet sophisticated and lucrative overseas cheating networks thrive. How do they work? As I’ve reported before,  the ETS and College Board use questions on overseas exams forms that have already been given in the United States, and this opens a door to cheating that goes beyond having other people take the test for a student.

The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a nonprofit organization that advocates against the misuse of high-stakes standardized tests, has found that test-prep companies in Asia have been operating for years in various ways; they send compatriots to the United States to take tests and/or obtain test questions by memorizing them or obtaining them illegally, as well as by monitoring chat boards where students post questions.

Furthermore, on SAT days, these firms have people sit for the test at Asian sites in times zones several hours ahead, memorize questions and take a “bathroom break” to call or text questions that can e-mailed to clients or loaded on calculators students are permitted to use at test centers. Last October, 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,” and she added that one student had “the entire test with answers and essay already completed.”

On May 1, two versions of an SAT exam were e-mailed separately to me and to FairTest, purportedly  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. FairTest says it has confirmed that many of the questions on the versions we received were on the May 2 test given in the United States.

Said Bob Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest:

Last week’s federal indictments of 15 people for their role in an international college admissions test cheating conspiracy again demonstrates that many well-to-do Asian families are willing to do whatever is necessary to get their children (often their eldest sons) into brand-name U.S. colleges. Along with many reports that cheating was widespread on all five SATs offered in Asia during the current academic year and FairTest’s receipt of two “live” SAT forms before they were administered, the Department of Justice’s legal action is strong evidence of a fundamental breakdown in test security on College Board/ETS exams. Since it is not possible to tell which test-takers had prior access to actual test items or had imposters take the exam in their place, the validity and reliability of all recent SAT scores should be questioned.

And he said further:  “No admissions office can be certain whether an applicant’s reported scores are an accurate reflection of test performance or were inflated through prior knowledge of test content or other improper behavior.”

More broadly, there are related issues involving the growing number of Chinese nationals applying to study in the United States that are challenging college admissions officers even as many American colleges and universities welcome these students in part because a majority can pay full tuition.

According to the Institute of International Education, there were in the 2013-14 academic year, 274,439 students from China studying in the United States – up 16.5 percent from. China remains the leading place of origin for students coming to the United States for the fifth – and Chinese students now make up 31 percent of international students studying in the United States. The number of undergraduate students from China is growing too.

But there are questions  about how many of them get admitted to U.S. colleges. This 2014 Hechinger Report story reported that as many as 90 percent of recommendation letters for Chinese applicants to Western universities were falsified in 2011, according to the U.S. educational consulting firm Zinch China. It also said 70 percent of admissions essays were found to have been written by someone other than the applicants and half of secondary school transcripts were falsified.

It is reasonable to expect, then, that some of these students arrive at U.S. colleges unprepared to do the work because of language or other issues. This May 2015 Atlantic magazine story says a “startling number of Chinese students are getting kicked out of American colleges”:

According to a white paper published by WholeRen, a Pittsburgh-based consultancy, an estimated 8,000 students from China were expelled from universities and colleges across the United States in 2013-4. The vast majority of these students — around 80 percent — were removed due to cheating or failing their classes.

The 2014 Time story said that the SAT remains a pencil and paper exam and is not loaded onto computers that are connected to the Internet, so hacking into a system to get it is impossible. Clearly, that hasn’t stopped cheaters from finding other ways to get around the system.