The security of standardized testing materials is critical in preserving the relevance and fairness of the test as a whole. Since so many students around the world take the SAT, it can be difficult to prevent leaks, but the College Board does have many measures in place to keep confidential questions from being released to the public. In this article, I'll go over the specifics of the SAT security measures, explain the most recent breaches in test security, and review what all of this means for you.
Why Is SAT Test Security a Concern?
Test security is a huge concern for the administrators of standardized tests like the SAT. If anyone manages to access test questions before the exam is administered, the whole system is compromised by the students who had an unfair advantage. The invalid scores of students who cheated will ruin the curve, which just ends up hurting the scores of other students who didn't get a sneak peek at the test.
This means that the integrity of the test is extremely important for all students. If people are able to access materials before the exam, their unfair advantage can actively hurt your scores by creating artificially high numbers of top scorers.
Breaches in test security also undermine the overall validity of the SAT as a measure of academic ability, which is a huge problem for the College Board and for universities that rely on SAT scores to assess candidates.
How Does the College Board Ensure SAT Security?
There are a variety of measures that the College Board implements to ensure that test questions don't fall into the wrong hands. These regulations come into play throughout the test registration and administration process.
Registration Security Regulations
The College Board shares scores and registration information with each student’s high school. If an investigation into a student’s scores is conducted, this information will also be shared with any colleges where he or she has been admitted. Keeping all parties in the loop ensures that it’s much more difficult for someone to take the SAT for another person or circumvent the regulations in any other way.
The College Board also implements an “intended use” policy, which means they take steps to ensure that everyone who registers for the SAT is using it to apply to colleges or scholarship programs. People who are taking the SAT for other reasons can only take it on dates in October, January, and May (January will be replaced with August in the 2017-18 school year) because the College Board discloses the test form for those dates with its optional Question and Answer Service.
For example, everyone here at PrepScholar originally signed up for the first administration of the 2016 SAT in March. However, all of our registrations were transferred to the date in May instead because we were just taking the test to get a feel for the new exam, not to apply for anything (and also very few of us could pull off a 21 Jump Street thing). If anyone who takes the test has the opportunity to order the QAS, the test material will be out there for the public to see anyways, so there’s no real risk of compromising the integrity of the exam. All students are prohibited from discussing exam content unless it's released in the form of the QAS.
Accurate depiction of me taking the SAT
Test Day Security Regulations
The College Board also takes measures to keep test materials secure before, during, and after the exam. If you’ve taken the SAT before, you know that you have to break a seal on the test booklet to begin, which ensures that no one can read the questions ahead of time without the College Board’s knowledge. Test materials are secured in lock boxes when they’re sent to international locations to prevent the theft of test booklets.
Every student must have a valid photo ID and admission ticket to be allowed into the test center. Photo IDs are checked against your admission ticket multiple times throughout the testing process to ensure that no one can swap identities. You have to upload a photo of yourself during SAT registration so the test coordinators can verify that you are who you say you are.
As you might expect, phones and other electronic devices are banned from test centers to prevent people from documenting the content of the exam. No one is allowed to read test materials without completing an answer sheet or leave the building before the test is finished. If you do, you will be dismissed, and your scores will be canceled. These actions are red flags that the person might have registered for the exam just to get a look at the test content and share it unlawfully.
Even if you've been given extra time, you’re not allowed to skip ahead to preview sections before you start them. Seeing the questions before the section starts, even if it only happens during an earlier part of the test, leads to an unfair advantage.
Prepare for separation anxiety when you can't look at your phone every five seconds (I do this too - I'm not just making fun of teenagers here).
Recent Breaches in SAT Test Security
The College Board has experienced some issues in the past few years with people obtaining test materials ahead of time. In fact, in 2013, they brought in an independent consultant who recommended additional security measures to ensure the confidentiality of not just physical test materials but also the College Board’s servers, storage, and data. The potential for system hacking complicates the security measures the College Board has to take to ensure exam safety, meaning sometimes things slip through the cracks.
Also, for international test administrations, the College Board sometimes reuses questions or entire sections that have already been given to students in the US. This greatly increases the risk that students will have prior knowledge of the material. Problems with SAT security are particularly prevalent in Asia, where the College Board has delayed score releases and even canceled test administrations several times after finding evidence that the material was previously released to the public.
In January of 2016, test administrations were canceled in China and Macau due to evidence of leaked test materials. In May of 2013, all scores in South Korea for both the SAT and SAT Subject Tests were canceled.
The latest version of the SAT, introduced in March of 2016, has experienced major issues with question leaks. Reuters reported that a disgruntled ex-College Board employee with access to the materials showed them hundreds of confidential test questions. The College Board confirmed that these were official questions and that their public circulation would have dire consequences for the integrity of the test. They even got the FBI involved. Agents raided the home of the whistleblower in question, seizing computers and other potentially incriminating materials.
This matter is still under investigation, and the College Board is working to switch out sections of future tests that they fear may have been compromised. The College Board treats the release of confidential test questions to the public as an extremely serious criminal matter. This makes sense because of the huge amount of time and money that went into creating questions that are now essentially useless.
This is the actual whistle that was blown to call out the College Board for shoddy preparation of test materials. Just kidding, this one is far too whimsical for such purposes. It was definitely a more robust metal whistle.
How the College Board Is Cracking Down on SAT Cheating
In February 2017, the College Board announced they will begin implementing new regulations to crack down on SAT cheating in both the US and abroad. Some of these new measures include:
- Reducing how often the SAT is administered overseas. (The SAT will now be offered four times a year overseas, in October, December, March, and May.)
- Reducing the number of questions that are reused for multiple tests.
- Providing the names of people and firms suspected of cheating to law enforcement and federal agencies (both in the US and abroad).
- Preventing people from taking the SAT, SAT Subject Tests, or AP Exams if the College Board has found they were guilty of past cheating offenses.
- Making it easier for test takers and proctors to confidentially report suspected cheating.
These new measures won't eliminate cheating completely, but they should help make it even harder to cheat on the SAT and get away with it. Reducing the number of SAT questions used on multiple exams should especially lower the number of students who walk into the SAT already knowing some of the questions and use that information to inflate their scores.
What Does SAT Security Mean for You?
For the most part, you shouldn’t have to worry too much about this issue. However, it’s in your best interests to protect the security of the test by following protocol during the exam, not sharing confidential information, and reporting any leaks you hear about to the College Board.
Leaks of test materials create unfair advantages for certain groups of students and damage the credibility of everyone’s SAT scores. Such incidents may lead the College Board to cancel the scores of a large group of students if they aren't sure who had access to the test beforehand, which is very unfair to people who played by the rules.
When you arrive at the test center, make sure you have a valid photo ID and admission ticket ready to present to the test coordinator. During the test, don't peek at sections ahead of time or try to go back and fix mistakes on sections that have already passed. Don't discuss exam content during breaks or leave the building for any reason. The only electronic devices you should have are a watch (if you want) and an approved calculator. Keep your smartphone turned off and in your backpack for the duration of the test. It's best not to risk violating any of these rules because if you're caught, you may be dismissed and have your scores canceled.
You should also refrain from discussing or posting about specific questions in the aftermath of a test administration. These same questions may be reused overseas or on a future SAT test date in the US. Once the questions are out there on the internet, there’s no telling who will find and take advantage of them.
To ensure security of SAT test materials, the College Board takes steps to preserve the integrity of the test questions both before and after the exam is administered. Despite these precautions, there continue to be question leaks and cheating scandals that have affected many students' scores.
Test security is extremely important due to the nature of standardized tests, and it is especially critical for the SAT considering how popular it is around the world as a college admissions assessment. As you go through the process of registering for and taking the SAT, make sure you avoid sharing confidential information. This could have a huge negative impact on the validity of your scores and the scores of potentially thousands of other students.
What is SAT test day really like? Read this guide to learn exactly what to expect after you arrive at the test center.
You don't want to bring anything to the SAT that might compromise your scores. This article will tell you which materials to bring and which to leave at home.
Finally, if you notice any suspicious behavior during the test, it's in your best interests to speak up. Find out how you can report cheating and address other issues at your test center.
Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points? We've written a guide about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:
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Samantha is a blog content writer for PrepScholar. Her goal is to help students adopt a less stressful view of standardized testing and other academic challenges through her articles. Samantha is also passionate about art and graduated with honors from Dartmouth College as a Studio Art major in 2014. In high school, she earned a 2400 on the SAT, 5's on all seven of her AP tests, and was named a National Merit Scholar.