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Cheating on the SAT Spreads to the United States



Not again! Allegations of cheating swirl around the latest administration of the SAT on May 2. While recent scandals have sprung from Asian countries like China and South Korea, this one is centered on the U.S.-based test, which hundreds of thousands of students took at the beginning of May.

It seems that communication technology and time zone differences around the world have punched holes in the SAT's security. Let's take a look at what's unfolded in this investigation so far.


Allegations Around the May 2 SAT

Lots of students take the SAT in the spring, many of whom are juniors hoping to hit their target scores in time for college deadlines senior year. This most recent administration on May 2 has allegations of a major security breach.

Educational Testing Service (ETS) officials suspect that students may have had access to the test, or at least to some "live" questions, before test day. This was first reported publicly by a Washington Post writer who received a copy of the May 2 test a day before the official test. The reporter did not report the source, but this release was clearly not approved by the College Board. Thus, an unknown number of students around the country could have had access to this test ahead of time.

She was not the only one to report this leak. The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, or FairTest, is committed to ensuring that standardized tests are fair and open. According to its public education director Bob Schaeffer, FairTest was emailed a version of the SAT before it was actually administered to students. Since no one is supposed to see the test before students take it, he and others gathered that this was a major security breach, likely on a global scale.

It would be very easy to score a 2300+ score on the SAT with prior access to the test, which would disrupt the rest of the grading scale. SAT test scores are designed to be resistant to fluctuations in tester quality from test to test, but if a single test has an abundance of undetected cheaters, this would disrupt the normal statistics in the exam.

Any students whose scores will be withheld should have been notified by this point, but ETS has not yet released any further information about the findings of its investigation.

College Board takes security around the SAT very seriously. SAT tests and questions are saved on computers that aren't connected to the internet. They are highly classified and accessible only to ETS officials with clearance for direct access. Test proctors are required to report any suspicious behavior on test day. So given the high security around the SAT, how could live questions have been leaked before test day?

The findings aren't known yet. It's possible that a leak happened in the process of shipping tests to test centers, or that an internal staff member at College Board released the test. But there have been clear methods of systematic cheating in the past, primarily in Asia.


Global Connections Among Cheating Rings

This recent investigation in the U.S. is just one piece of the larger global puzzle. Students scores were actually withheld in Asian countries in October, November, December, and January. In January of this year, all scores were withheld for Chinese students who tested both in China and outside of their country. Because of recent regulations about which schools can administer the SAT, most Chinese nationals have to travel outside of mainland China, like to Hong Kong or Macao, to take the test.

Along similar lines, all scores were canceled in 2013 in South Korea. All of the tutoring centers in Seoul were investigated, and educators were even barred from leaving the country. In 2010, a school in Seoul emailed live SAT questions to two Korean students who lived in Connecticut. When their scores jumped hundreds of points, ETS audited their results and discovered the cheating on the SAT.

So what do these cases of cheating in China, South Korea, and other countries have to do with this most recent one in the U.S.? Apparently ETS recycles tests that have already been administered in the U.S. to use internationally, like in China, South Korea, and Australia. Because the U.S. and these other countries are in different time zones, this policy creates a vulnerability that many companies have taken advantage of to gain access to live tests and then share or sell them to students. 

According to Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post's "Answer Sheet," this access to the SAT may be gained through a 5 step process.



It's a small world after all.


The 5 Step "Time Zone" Cheating Process

The security of the SAT has been compromised for a number of reasons, the most important of which are geographic dispersion, time zone differences of 12 or more hours, recycling of already used tests, and technology that allows people to instantly transmit questions and answers. The following steps illustrate one way that testing companies seem to be illegally obtaining and selling live questions and answers.

  1. People in the U.S. gain access to previously administered SAT tests and share or sell them to overseas "tutoring" and educational companies.

  2. These overseas companies keep extensive databases of any and all SAT questions and answers. Because ETS reuses tests in Asia and other countries, many of these questions are "live" and will show up on future tests.

  3. These companies enlist "hired guns" to sit for the SAT. They advertise this on online message boards like QQ, WeChat, and Taobao. When these employees sit for the SAT, often in a time zone hours ahead of China, they share the questions and answers. People have been found with earpieces or taking pictures of their cell phones and sharing the information during breaks between sections.

  4. After receiving the questions and answers, the company immediately searches through its database to locate the questions and answers that will be given to students in their time zone soon thereafter.

  5. Finally, they advertise this information and contact their clients. These companies transmit the information to paying clients, who might put the answers in their cell phones or program them into their calculators.

This all seems like an elaborate plan just to get access to the SAT, but the high level of competition and pressure creates a substantial market for this kind of easy information. While in the past most cheating allegations had to do with impersonation, or with one student sitting in for another, now they zero in on more advanced operations that take advantage of time zone differences and instant communication through online chats and cell phones.

Given these breaches that seem to be happening more and more in the past few years, what security measures does ETS have in place to protect the confidentiality of the SAT before testing day?


Security Measures Tightened

As mentioned above, the major vulnerability around the SAT used to be one of identity impersonation. On Long Island, New York in 2011, for example, high school students were found guilty of paying college students to sit in for them and take the test in their stead. Since then, ETS has required students to upload photographs along with their IDs.

Besides this, ETS has its testing materials on serious lockdown before the test is administered and is very strict about testing guidelines for students and proctors. However, the time zone changes among countries and policy of recycling already used tests opens up a window for companies and students to get early exposure to the questions. So is ETS going to find a way to close this window?




When recycling is not the best policy...


Will ETS Stop Recycling Old Tests?

FairTest's Bob Schaeffer is adamant that ETS should stop reusing tests given in the U.S. in Asia. According to Schaeffer, it's impossible to keep these tests confidential today given our global connectedness and technology. Perhaps because these types of cheating on the SAT scandals are a relatively recent phenomenon, or because the cost of creating brand new tests is high, ETS has not changed this policy yet.

Another small step they might take is to train test proctors to be even stricter about confiscating cell phones and any other devices, as well as having students clear the memory on their programmable calculators. It has yet to be seen what new guidelines and rules will be put in place, but the huge scale of score cancellations and allegations of cheating month after month seem to demand some change be put in place. Without addressing these issues, ETS will surely continue to have controversy around how the SAT can be used as a fair evaluation of students' readiness for college around the world.

As I talked about above, ETS and FairTest have not shared that they know how many students actually had access to the leaked SAT information. As this and other investigations continue, what does it mean for students who have taken or plan to take the SAT in the future?


What Do These Security Breaches Mean for Students?

While allegations of cheating on the SAT are relatively rare for the majority of students, they do affect a few thousand each year. ETS has about 2,500 tests flagged each year for suspicious scores, and of these, it might withhold about 1,000 of them. 

Rather than a highly synced system of espionage with earpieces and massive databases, these cases are usually much more low-key. ETS does an audit if they see a huge score increase, like a 350+ increase in reading and math combined or a 250+ increase overall. If something about your scores from one test to the next seem unbelievable, ETS could delay your scores. In some cases, they might release them later, or they might require you to send letters on your behalf testifying to your preparation between the two tests.

This can be a huge holdup and especially stressful if your college deadlines are approaching, and you don't have much time to retake the test. To make sure this doesn't happen to you, I would recommend taking every SAT you take seriously. You can definitely start early and take the SAT several times to raise your scores, but I wouldn't recommend sitting for the SAT without having done at least 10 hours of prep first, at least to get yourself familiar with the format, instructions, and timing of the test.

This is especially important for students who speak a language other than English at home. I worked with an English Language Learner student whose scores were canceled after the proctor saw her flipping through her test booklet. The proctor suspected she was returning to sections after time had been called. It turned out she hadn't fully understood the instructions and didn't know this wasn't allowed.

Luckily, she had time to take the SAT again, but only after calling all her colleges and asking them to extend deadlines for her SAT score reports! The moral of the story is that you always want to do at least some test prep before sitting for the real test, even if just to ensure that you understand the specific instructions for each section.

So what does ETS tell your colleges if it cancels your scores? In most cases, ETS does not specify a reason for cancelled scores, but admissions officers can fill in the blanks. You don't want anything to raise a red flag in your application, least of all an investigated and invalidated SAT score.

Unfortunately, that might just be what's going to happen for students who took the SAT on May 2, as it did for students in China and South Korea in recent years. Time will tell about the results of this investigation. In the meantime, remember that prepping, not cheating, is always the best policy when it comes to the SAT - and leave yourself plenty of extra opportunities to retake the test in case you're unlucky enough to find yourself in the midst of a national cheating scandal!


What's Next?

Are you planning to take the SAT once? Twice? As many times as College Board will allow? Read about how many times you can (and should) plan on taking the SAT to achieve your target scores.

Does the thought of sitting down for the SAT make your stomach turn? This article discusses how mindfulness and simple relaxation techniques can help you calm your nerves and focus on the task at hand.

You know that preparing is important for the SAT, but exactly how many hours should you study? Read about a solid test prep schedule for the SAT here.


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Rebecca Safier
About the Author

Rebecca graduated with her Master's in Adolescent Counseling from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has years of teaching and college counseling experience and is passionate about helping students achieve their goals and improve their well-being. She graduated magna cum laude from Tufts University and scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT.

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