In May 2013, the College Board outright cancelled the administration of the SAT in South Korea because someone had obtained and distributed copies of numerous SAT and SAT Subject Tests. Since some of these tests consisted of entirely new material that had never been used on previous assessments, the only logical conclusion is that either someone outside the company managed to steal the tests or someone inside the company leaked them. As far as we know, that mystery has yet to be solved. And this is not just a College Board problem. ACT, Inc. just cancelled all administrations of the ACT in South Korea and Hong Kong this past June. The testing materials had apparently been “compromised”; that bit of ‘60s spy TV show jargon is all the public seems to know about the situation at the moment.
Not surprisingly, theft and premature release of testing materials is pretty rare. A far bigger problem, is that the testing companies reuse old questions, passages, and entire exams, sometimes fewer than two years after those materials are first released. A survey of threads on College Confidential reveals that the January 2016 SAT contained passages that had been used in the June 2014 exam, while ACT exam 73 E was administered in both October 2013 and April 2016. What’s even more alarming is that test forms that debut in the United States are often administered in Asian countries as few as six months later.
A very lucrative industry has sprung up in China and South Korea to exploit this easy path to a better score. “Tutoring” companies will grill their pupils after a test administration, scour College Confidential and Reddit threads, and send their tutors to take standardized tests, all in an effort to gather information that will allow them to reconstruct the test that was administered that day. Students then study these exams, literally memorizing the questions and passages, in the hope of seeing some redundant material when they take the test.
The SAT and ACT test-makers have taken several steps to diminish the degree of this sort of cheating: the number of annual test administrations is lower in countries known for cheating; SATs are shipped in locked boxes; and American-owned websites are routinely forced to take down postings relating to questions on recent exams on the basis of their being copyrighted material. This only reduces the degree to which cheating takes place. If you want to keep kids from accessing material that will be featured on upcoming assessments, you have to create all-new material for each administration, and according to the College Board, that’s just not a financially viable option. Each brand new SAT costs approximately $1 million to make, and that cost would be passed on to the consumer in the form of excessive testing fees. 1.7 million students from the class of 2015 took the SAT, however, making you wonder just how bad those testing fees would actually need to be to cover costs.
What should kids and parents take away from all of this? Well, keep in mind that not too many people cheat. According to Ray Nicosia, the head of the Office of Testing Integrity for the College Board, far less than 1% of test takers actually cheat. Moreover, SAT scores are standardized so that they ultimately reflect a student’s performance as compared to his or her peers. In other words, if you don’t take the test on the same date and in the same country in which cheating is pandemic, there won’t be a whole lot of cheaters in the batch to throw off the score distribution. What is there to do besides studying and doing your best on whichever standardized test you take? Do your homework, bust your hump, and never forget that the skills you develop and knowledge you acquire during the test prep process are ultimately a lot more important than any numerical score.
Blog by Jon who is a tutor with Ivy Educational Services