Testing times for SAT exam board

Cram schools in Asia thrive on exploiting gaps in college admission test's security

LOS ANGELES • Mr Ding Xingyuan is a second-year student at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The 20-year-old from China took the SAT, formerly known as the Scholastic Assessment Test, college entrance exam four times. He had an advantage on his final try: a booklet from his Shanghai test preparation school.

His study aid was far more valuable than the practice questions that students in the United States use to prepare for the SAT, the standardised test used by thousands of US colleges to help select applicants.

Known as a jijing, the booklet was essentially an answer key.

Mr Ding said he already knew the answers to about half of the critical reading section of the SAT when he took the test in Hong Kong in 2013. His score on that section? A perfect 800, he said.

Mr Ding's cram school is part of a vibrant Asian industry that systematically exploits the SAT's security shortcomings. Chief among them is a vulnerability created by reusing material from tests already given.

The new exam retains a fundamental weakness plaguing the old one: the recycling of test material. Already, American students who took the new test this month have been discussing the questions and answers online. Asian prep centres have rushed to learn all about the redesigned SAT and share the intelligence with their clients.

The College Board, which owns the SAT, has acknowledged widespread problems. About 64,000 students took the SAT in East Asia during the 2013-2014 school year, including 29,000 from China. Admissions officers have no idea which of those foreign test-takers saw material in advance.

Gaming the SAT takes many forms. One scam is time-zone cheating, in which test-takers in one part of the world feed questions and answers from the SAT to people sitting the exam later the same day.

Another problem is the outright theft of test booklets.

But the largest threat appears to come from the test preparation centres exploiting the College Board's practice of reusing tests.

One way to stop cram schools from exploiting recycled material would be to administer questions once, globally, and then never use them again. But College Board spokesman Zach Goldberg said test-takers potentially would have to pay more than double the current fee. Nor would it solve the problem of time-zone cheating.

The College Board has introduced a redesigned version of the exam this month in the US. But the new exam retains a fundamental weakness plaguing the old one: the recycling of test material.

Already, American students who took the new test this month have been discussing the questions and answers online. Asian prep centres have rushed to learn all about the redesigned SAT and share the intelligence with their clients.

Three years ago, the College Board had information that showed a security crisis in East Asia.

In South Korea, the board cancelled the May 2013 sitting of the SAT after test prep operators allegedly obtained tests in advance.

Other lapses were revealed in China when the December 2012 SAT exam was partly reused in January 2014. A Shanghai test prep centre, Veterans Education, had obtained the 2012 exam and given it to its students. A similar example happened in October last year.

In an e-mail to Reuters early this year, a tipster claimed a version of the test in his possession was "very likely" to be reused three days later, on Jan 23, at the international sitting of the exam. Reuters found dozens of its questions discussed on the popular website Reddit.

The College Board on Jan 21 cancelled the scheduled SAT on Jan 23 in mainland China and Macau.

But elsewhere in Asia, the SAT went ahead as planned. The next month, the College Board notified US universities that it was delaying the scores of an undisclosed number of students because of "a security incident".

The delay affected test-takers in Singapore and other Asian cities.

Test security specialist Neal Kingston, who spent 12 years working for the College Board's security contractor, said he was "significantly troubled by the magnitude" of the security failures.

The redesigned SAT will be administered for the first time overseas in May. It is unlikely that the first foreign tests will include material that was administered on March 5 in the US.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 30, 2016, with the headline 'Testing times for SAT exam board'. Print Edition | Subscribe