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College Board: Yes, people cheated on the old SAT, but let’s not talk about that

Tables are seen inside a hall at Asia-World Expo near Hong Kong Airport on Oct. 2, 2015, one day before SAT examinations were to take place. (Bobby Yip/Reuters)
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For years now, there have been repeated scandals about students cheating on the SAT, the college admissions test. The College Board, which owns the test, has said that things would be different with the newly redesigned SAT, which premiered in March. That, it turns out, was wishful thinking.

Reuters recently disclosed that questions have been leaked from the new exam, which could set up the same problem as in the past if the College Board intends to reuse the questions, as it has in the past. And on Wednesday, Reuters reported that “U.S. high school students were administered SAT tests that included questions and answers widely available online more than a year before they took the exam.” That was nearly a year after I reported in May 2015 on a breach of an SAT test taken by hundreds of thousands of students in the United States.

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

Meet the new test security issues. Same as the old test security issues.

SAT cheating scandals have been uncovered in the United States, such as the one in 2011 when students in New York were accused of accepting payment or paying others to take the test (and the ACT). And they have been found overseas, such as on Jan. 23, 2016, when the SAT was canceled at some test centers in Asia because of a security breach, or in May 2013, when scores from the entire administration of the SAT and SAT Subject tests in South Korea were canceled because of a leak of questions.

SAT cheating scandal broadens with indictment of Chinese nationals

Those security breaches were nothing new; at every test administration overseas for some years now, some scores have been withheld because of cheating, which has flourished through a sophisticated system employed by test prep companies and others and made possible in large part by the fact that the College Board reuses questions in Asia that have already been used in the United States.

Test-prep companies in Asia have been operating for years in various ways, which have been tracked by the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a nonprofit organization that advocates against the misuse of standardized tests. They send people 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 — including the website College Confidential — where students post questions. Furthermore, on SAT days, these firms have people sit for the test at Asian sites in time zones several hours ahead, memorize questions and take a “bathroom break” to call or text questions that can be e-mailed to clients or loaded on calculators students are permitted to use at other test centers.

Actually, test questions have been reused in the United States as well. The news agency Reuters recently released a series of stories about cheating on the SAT, both foreign and domestic, which found:

  • Internal documents show that the U.S. college entrance exam has been compromised in Asia far more often than acknowledged. And the newly redesigned SAT retains a key vulnerability that the test-prep industry has exploited for years.”
  • Booklets for the redesigned exam leaked online within days of the test. The ongoing failures to secure the SAT are prompting some college officials to question the validity of exam scores.”
  • At least five times in the past three years, U.S. high school students were administered SAT tests that included questions and answers widely available online more than a year before they took the exam, a Reuters analysis shows.”

So what is the College Board’s answer? Yes, there was cheating, but that’s old news. Let’s look to the future. When I asked for a comment about the Reuters revelations from the College Board, I was directed to a statement the organization released on its website, dated April 20, 2016, titled, “A Note to Our Members About Security.” Here it is:

Throughout the 90-year history of the SAT, the College Board has faced the issue of cheating. The sad truth is that cheating is as old as testing. But the Internet age brings new challenges that are in no way unique to the College Board. Every testing organization — including all of the major undergraduate and graduate program admissions tests — reuse some test questions or forms. Targeted reuse is one way testing organizations ensure quality and comparability of tests over time.
Much of the reporting and Internet message board activity related to cheating is focused on the old SAT. As of March 2016, there is a new SAT. Along with that redesign, we are working with our K-12 and higher-ed members to examine all of our security policies and take bold steps to ensure the integrity of every administration. We’ve increased test form development to reduce form reuse, strengthened our prevention and detection techniques, and bolstered efforts to monitor and remove test content illegally posted online. We can, and will, do more.
The vast majority of students work hard, play by the rules, and do their best on the SAT and other tests. Assessment providers, the media, and the whole education community owe it to those students to stay focused on the real problem — those who cheat and steal for their own gain.

In other words, can we change the subject?

But that response does not directly address the Reuters finding that questions on the new SAT have again been leaked. As Reuters reported in this story, questions were again leaked on College Confidential — including about plate tectonics, a letter from 1960s labor leader Cesar Chavez, baby fat and a Michael Chabon novel passage. Reuters obtained two documents that revealed holes in the security of the new SAT, and said:

“Both documents contained entire sections from exams given on March 5. The College Board said it has a ‘long-standing policy’ not to comment on what may be on an exam. Reuters verified the authenticity of the documents nonetheless with people familiar with the new SAT’s content — including students who took the test.
“The first file, offered free by a Chinese online test-advice company called SAT Helper, reconstructs one version of that day’s exam booklet. It had a 52-question reading section with five text passages — including the Chavez letter and the plate tectonics essay.
“The second document was shown to Reuters by a Chinese tipster who had warned the College Board last year about security breaches. It contained images of another version of the March 5 test. Among its reading passages? The Chavez letter, the baby-fat paper, the plate tectonics piece and the Chabon novel.”

I asked the Educational Testing Service, which administers the test overseas for the College Board, about the Reuters findings. Tom Ewing, vice president for communications for ETS, said the College Board’s statement would suffice.

I’ve reported numerous times about cheating on the SAT overseas, and I’ve asked the College Board for comment each time. Each time, I’ve received a comment saying the organization wouldn’t comment, or provided with some boilerplate language about working on improving test security.

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