Special Report – College Board gave SAT exams that it knew had leaked

Xingyuan Ding is a sophomore at the University of California, Los Angeles, one of America's most exclusive public universities. In applying to schools, the 20-year-old from China took the SAT college entrance exam four times.

He had an advantage on his final try: a booklet compiled by a Shanghai test-preparation school he attended.

His study aid was far more valuable than the practice questions that students in America use to prepare for the SAT, the standardized test used by thousands of U.S. colleges to help select applicants. Known in Chinese as a jijing, the booklet was essentially an answer key. It revealed words from the correct responses to multiple-choice questions that had appeared on past SATs - many of which would be used again on the exam Ding took.

Thanks to the booklet, 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 December 2013.

"I felt really lucky," Ding said.

His score on that section? A perfect 800, he said.

Ding's advance look at material from the test he took was no fluke. His cram school is part of a vibrant Asian industry that systematically exploits security shortcomings in the SAT. Chief among them is a vulnerability created by the owner of the exam: the routine practice of reusing material from tests that already have been given.

The College Board, the not-for-profit organisation that owns the SAT, has acknowledged widespread problems with test security in Asia in recent years. Since October 2014, the New York-based organisation has delayed issuing scores in Asia six times and cancelled an exam sitting in two locations there - steps the College Board takes when it has evidence that test material has been exposed to the public.

But the breakdown in security is more pervasive than the College Board has publicly disclosed, Reuters has found. In addition to the security-related incidents the College Board has announced, the news agency identified eight occasions since late 2013 in which test material was circulating online before the SAT was administered overseas.

"COMPROMISED" EXAMS

A confidential PowerPoint presentation reveals that College Board officials had documented widespread security problems in June 2013, shortly after cancelling a sitting of the SAT in South Korea. The PowerPoint, reviewed by Reuters, shows that half of the SATs in inventory at the time had been "compromised" - the College Board's term to describe exams whose contents have leaked, in whole or in part, outside the organisation. Four of the exams had been compromised by an unnamed "Chinese website."

Even so, College Board officials confirmed that some portions of those tainted tests were later administered overseas. And the College Board took no steps to restrict testing in China, the SAT's largest market by far, even as it tightened security in smaller countries where exams had leaked.

About 64,000 students took the SAT in East Asia during the 2013-2014 school year, including 29,000 from China. And some 125,000 mainland Chinese undergraduates now attend U.S. universities.

Because of the extent of the security breaches Reuters uncovered, admissions officers have no idea which of those foreign test-takers saw material in advance.

The news agency's findings "add a huge new level of distrust" about the validity of international scores, Steve Syverson, an administrator at the University of Washington Bothell and a former board member of the National Association for College Admission Counselling. "The College Board does a lot of good things, but it will clearly be a major challenge for them to restore trust in the integrity of the test."

David Coleman, the president of the College Board, declined to comment for this article.

The SAT's security crisis comes as the College Board, whose membership includes more than 6,000 educational institutions, has introduced a redesigned version of the exam this month in the United States. The first overseas sitting takes place in May.

The new exam leaves in place a fundamental weakness plaguing the old one: the recycling of test material. The practice will continue with the new SAT, the College Board told Reuters. And that reuse of test material has proved to be a major security hole.

Recycling enables cram schools to gather reading passages and questions from past tests, then figure out the answers and package that material for their clients to study. The information comes from many sources. Test-prep centres have associates take the exam and memorize what they've seen. Some people even photograph the test booklet. The cram schools also analyse test information that American teenagers share on Internet forums. At times, cram schools have obtained actual SAT tests.

THE NEW SAT

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

The ability to obtain inside knowledge of what's going to appear on upcoming exams is critical to the test-prep operators.

"Basically, the only way to survive in the industry is to have a copy of the test" in advance of a sitting, said Ben Heisler, who offers test-prep and college-consulting services in South Korea.

"It's like doping in the Tour de France," Heisler said. "If you don't do it, someone else will."

Security breaches abroad are increasingly significant for U.S. higher education because schools are allocating more seats than ever to foreign students. About a third of the 761,000 degree-seeking foreign students in America come from China, according to the Institute of International Education. Overseas students are especially attractive because most don't qualify for financial aid and thus pay full price. Chinese students spent almost $10 billion on tuition and other goods and services in America in 2014, Department of Commerce statistics show.

Evidence that some foreign applicants are displacing Americans because of an unfair advantage on the SAT could add to a backlash against standardized testing in college admissions. Most universities still require applicants to take the SAT or its rival, the ACT, which is more popular in the United States. Yet a growing number of schools have questioned the usefulness of the exams and now make them optional. The SAT is taken by far more foreign students applying to U.S. colleges than the ACT is.

"It is hurting all students when someone cheats on any aspect of their application," said Douglas L. Christiansen, dean of admissions at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and chair of the board of trustees at the College Board. "It is displacing someone else."

College Board officials, including Christiansen, stand behind their handling of test security and the legitimacy of the scores sent to universities. Stacy Caldwell, a College Board vice president in charge of the SAT, wrote in a letter to Reuters that the organisation "would never move forward with a test administration without the full confidence that we can maintain the integrity of the exam and deliver to our member colleges and universities valid scores."

Caldwell said that a growing and evolving industry "thrives on the theft of test content and undermines the meaning of test scores." In an interview, she said the test-prep companies that misuse material, not students like Ding, are the "bad actors."

Caldwell acknowledged that College Board officials are unable to assess how many test-takers have seen actual exam material before taking the SAT - a reality that calls into question the number of current college students who gained an unfair advantage.

"I don't think we have specific statistics on that," Caldwell said.

"INTERNAL CONFIDENTIAL"

Source: Xinuhat