Disclaimer: we're not going to tell you how to cheat on the SAT. We do not advocate cheating by any means!
What we will tell you about, however, are some high-profile cheating scandals that have occurred in the recent past. While these scandals involved flagrant violations of ETS rules and regulations, we'll also reveal some little-known actions that can raise some red flags around your scores and jeopardize your chances of college admission.
But first, let's take a look at the scandals.
China: New SAT Material Already Leaked
Right around the time the SAT was redesigned in 2016, new SAT material was apparently leaked in China by test-prep centers competing for clients and profits. Through a combination of student interviews, online discussion forums, and leaks of entire chunks of the test, managers and teachers at cram schools obtained real test material from the new SAT.
Before getting into how people got these materials, let's discuss why it's a problem. The SAT, after all, had already been administered, so why should it matter if they obtain real test questions now? Well, at the time, the new SAT had only been administered in the US.
ETS tends to reuse SATs that were already given to US students when administering the test internationally. They don't have an unlimited number of new test questions, so they recycle tests from the US to be used abroad at a later date.
This practice might be superior to giving the same test on the same test dates since students could take advantage of time zones to discuss test material. However, it opens up a whole host of issues, namely the chance for students to see real test questions before they actually take the SAT. As anyone who's taken the SAT knows, you're not supposed to share this confidential material with anyone. Students who went to these test-prep centers in China got a huge leg up from premature knowledge of the test.
So how did these competitive prep companies already get their hands on new SAT sections? They accomplished this in a few ways.
First, some companies flew teachers over to the US to learn more about the SAT. These teachers waited outside test centers and asked students directly to describe the test they just took. According to Reuters, one prep company called Sanli sent 11 teachers to interview Sanli students studying in the US as they came out of the SAT!
A second way people in the prep industry learned about the SAT was in online discussion forums, such as College Confidential. Students—and perhaps non-student test takers—shared detailed information about their tests online. Savvy test-prep tutors took this insight and reconstructed test material that, in the end, looked extremely similar to the real SAT.
Finally—and the details of this are a little sketchy—SAT tutors appeared to have obtained leaked sections of the SAT. As reported by Reuters, there were documents circulating that contained entire sections of March 2016's SAT. Soon after the SAT was administered, test-prep companies in China advertised test booklets that contained questions very similar to, if not the same as, those on the real SAT.
It's unclear whether these students' scores were withheld or canceled, as they have been in past years. It'd be a shame for students to suffer the consequences of unethical practices of test-prep companies. For now, unfortunately, it seems that competition in the industry means that this kind of cheating will only continue.
As you'll read below, China, as well as South Korea, has been under scrutiny for this same practice in past years. Students in both countries who studied at certain test prep centers saw some of the SAT questions before they took the test.
This shadowy figure is clearly on his way to a predetermined meeting spot with a backpack full of top-secret SAT material.
China and South Korea: Students Given Answers to Repeat Tests
Security is extremely high around the SAT, so when foul play occurs, such as in January 2015's test administration in China and May 2013's test administration in South Korea, it becomes pretty big news. Scores from the test were withheld not just for all students who tested in China but also for all Chinese students (with a home address in China) who tested outside the country. And for students in South Korea? All their scores were canceled.
Here's what happened in our understanding: the College Board administers new tests only within the United States. Internationally, it used a random previously administered test (for example, any of the 60 tests given in the last 10 years). At various points, most notably May 2013, October 2014, and January 2015, ETS suspected that testing organizations illegally purchased SAT tests and questions that had already been given in the US and distributed them to students.
Many students recognized questions on their SAT as ones they'd already seen and answered before. Some even went so far as to obtain an entire answer set via text. When they got to the testing center, they texted their tutors a question on the test. The tutor then quickly texted them back a complete set of answers!
As I briefly mentioned above, I suspect the College Board recycles previously used SATs to avoid another method of cheating—if everyone around the world took the exact same SAT test, then the time zones would create another vulnerability. Someone in the US could give someone else in Australia the test questions and answers (or vice versa). As a result, the College Board concentrates the best tests in the US (where most test takers are) and gives international students less reliable tests from the past.
Unfortunately, this practice means that some students gain knowledge of their test before they even take it, whereas others get their scores canceled despite approaching the test with honesty.
While the two cases mentioned above were the most widespread, there have been several others over the years in East Asia that have led to investigations, score cancellations, and even legal indictments of test-prep company managers and teachers!
New York: Students Hired Others to Take Test for Them
Perhaps the biggest SAT cheating scandal to hit the US came out of Long Island, New York, in 2011. High school students hired others (mostly college students) to take the SAT for them with fake IDs. They paid students up to $3,600 to take the test in their stead.
This is understandably tempting—what if you could get a perfect scorer to take your SAT for you? How much would you pay for that?
When the cheating was discovered, these students faced charges of scheming to defraud, criminal impersonation, and falsifying business records. While none ultimately faced jail time, their names are public, so they will be forever linked to this highly conspicuous incident of cheating on the SAT.
South Korea: Test Centers Obtained and Distributed Advanced Copy
While you read above that ETS canceled SAT scores in South Korea for the May 2013 test, you might also be interested to learn that this wasn't the first time! In 2007, ETS canceled all scores for students who took the SAT in South Korea.
All 68 tutoring centers in Seoul were investigated, and 10 educators were even barred from leaving the country until the investigation concluded. ETS suspected that tutoring centers illegally obtained a copy of the SAT and distributed it to students in advance of test day.
SAT cheating cases are actually relatively rare—only about 2,000 tests are investigated out of the 3 million administered each year. Most of these investigations are concerned with individual cases of suspected test day cheating, such as a student copying from another's exam. Let's take a look at what else could prompt an investigation or cancellation of your test scores by ETS.
New Ways the College Board Is Cracking Down on Cheating
In February 2017, the College Board announced that they will begin taking new measures to help combat cheating both in the US and abroad. Some of the new measures announced include the following:
- Giving the names of people and test-prep companies suspected of cheating to law enforcement and federal agencies in the US and abroad.
- Reducing the number of times the SAT is given overseas each year. (The SAT will now be offered four times a year overseas in October, December, March, and May.)
- Reducing the number of questions reused on different tests.
- Prohibiting people from taking the SAT, SAT Subject Tests, or AP Exams if the College Board has concluded they were guilty of prior cheating.
- Making it easier for proctors and test takers to anonymously report suspected cheating.
These new actions likely won't eliminate cheating, but they should help make it even harder to cheat on the SAT and get away with it. In particular, reducing the number of SAT questions used on multiple exams should significantly reduce the number of test takers who go into the exam already knowing some of the questions and use that knowledge to inflate their scores.
What Can Get Your SAT Scores Withheld or Canceled?
Not all cheating on the SAT involves high tech, international, back-door deals—the traditional signs of cheating are more common and could result in cancellation of your scores. Looking at anyone else's paper, talking during the test, flipping ahead through the test booklet, or continuing to work or fill in ovals on the bubble sheet after time has been called is strictly prohibited. Test proctors are on the lookout for this type of behavior and could report it if they feel something is off.
Make sure you're aware of all the rules of the SAT, especially if you have a hard time absorbing instructions on test day or if English isn't your first language. Familiarizing yourself with the instructions well in advance will allow you to focus all your energy on taking the test itself.
Another thing that could prompt an investigation into your scores is huge fluctuations between test administrations. If you jump ahead a huge number of points, or score highly in one section and much lower in a similar section, it's possible that the College Board will withhold your scores. In this case, they'll give you a chance to defend your scores—perhaps you took an intensive SAT prep course after your first test and can provide a testimonial from your teacher—but this process could get long and frustrating and isn't guaranteed to have a happy ending.
This situation is quite rare, but here's what you can do to prevent it:
- Make sure you understand the instructions before test day
- Try your best on every test administration rather than treating one as a throwaway or practice run
To reiterate, be careful not to do any of the following:
- Look at anyone else's test
- Talk to your neighbor once the test has started
- Flip ahead through your test booklet
- Keep working after time has been called
If ETS suspects cheating on the SAT, what exactly happens next?
Consequences of Cheating on the SAT
While students in the Long Island scandal faced serious charges, the most common consequence of cheating on the SAT is having your scores canceled. If they've already been sent to colleges as part of your application, then the College Board will notify these schools that your SAT scores are no longer valid.
Usually, the College Board won't specify the reason for the cancellation, although they do have the authority to tell third parties what happened. More often, their reason will be quite general. But since score cancellation is rare, this could raise a huge red flag to colleges. Although you'll be allowed to retake the SAT, you might not have time to retake it and get your scores sent in time for your college deadlines.
The SAT is a rite of passage that many students, both American and international, share on their path to high school graduation and college. Approaching the SAT with honesty and integrity is the best memory you can have of this near-universal academic landmark.
What to Learn From These SAT Cheating Scandals
Don't cheat on the SAT—prep instead! Nothing will improve your SAT scores like practicing with high-quality materials and becoming comfortable with the content and format of the test. Check out our free eBook for five vital strategies you need to know that will get you at least a 160-point increase.
Since the College Board and your test proctors take fairness and security extremely seriously, be sure you're following all instructions and regulations, including what to the bring to the SAT and what to leave at home.
Finally, try to keep perspective throughout the test-prep and college application process, which can cause both a lot of excitement and a lot of stress. Ultimately, if you move through the process with awareness and integrity, you're likely to end up in the college that's the best possible fit for you.
Feeling stressed about the SAT? Here are what we believe to be the three major sources of SAT anxiety, and what coping skills you can use in your daily life to manage them.
Is test day almost upon you? Here's what you should do the night before to prepare to take the SAT.
Are you a high performer who's gunning for a perfect score? Read our guide to learn how you, too, can score a 1600 on the SAT!
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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.