Is the College Board Cheating Itself?

Last month, groups of High School students sat the new and improved SAT. This version is intended to be a straightforward assessment of a student’s abilities, as opposed to the original, which was famous for being convoluted and misrepresenting academic potential. A change to the SAT was a much-needed overhaul for College Board, whose competitor the ACT was gaining test-takers. The company’s move was therefore unsurprising; test-taking and college admissions has become a veritable business and student loyalty is crucial. Before it restructured the SAT, College Board was benefiting from the test’s trickiness, urging students to buy multiple prep-books that teach you how to “master” the SAT. In other words, the more practice questions you did, the more familiar you became with the bizarre questions. 

However, the integrity of the entire test is put into question when the exact same questions a student encountered in a practice test appear on their actual exam. Many are claiming that the “new” SAT relies on recycled material from past exams. This is not the first time College Board has reused old questions. For example, there was a lot of controversy following the March 2005 exam, which was also the first version of a “new” test. The SAT offered a Sunday March 12th exam for observers of Sabbath, which was identical to the Saturday test except for an altered essay prompt. Although the College Board states that test-takers may not discuss the questions, answers were all over the internet on sites like College Confidential. Not only did the College Board re-administer the same test twice, giving dishonest students a substantial opportunity to gain an unfair advantage, but they recycled portions of the test. The Writing section was taken from a November 2002 SAT Writing subject test, and the Math section was heavily based on that of March 2002. 

With admissions to colleges becoming more and more selective each year, many students will do anything to get a leg up. This is especially true for the growing number of international students who seek admission to top U.S. schools. The plummeting acceptance rates affect them most. Only 11% of the Class of 2020 of Princeton was international. For this reason, many international test prep companies take advantage of the College Board’s recycling of old questions, both in past exams and in the new one. In 2013, Xingyuan Ding, a student who now studies at UCLA, used a Shanghai test-prep booklet known as a jijing. It contains the answers to questions that already appeared several times in the SATs, and Ding recognized more than ½ of the questions from the Critical Reading section after studying from the booklet. To create the booklets, the test centers sometimes send someone to take the test in the U.S. and take pictures. 

Asian prep schools have already begun analyzing the new test, first administered in March 2016, to remove any unpredictability their clients might face. One of the main loopholes these companies use to their advantage is that the SAT uses old questions from American exams on the international exams. Another approach is “time-zone” cheating, where test-takers in a certain area tell the answers to test-takers taking the exam later that day. Cheaters also resort to the most basic and effective approach: downright stealing the exams. This “content theft” has been an issue in China, South Korea, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. For this reason, the exams were shipped in locked boxes to test centers in 2015. 

The evident solution to stop international prep centers from exploiting the College Board’s reused questions is simply to stop reusing questions. However, the College Board claims that this is unrealistic and would result in higher fees for both test administrators and test-takers. College Board Vice President Stacy Caldwell said “This is not a matter of just running another one off the assembly line.” Even if College Board stops recycling old papers, this is not guaranteed to deter international prep centers from finding ways of gaining an advantage on the exam. The consequences of SAT cheating extend to all aspects of the college admissions process. With Princeton’s 6.46% acceptance rate this year, the difference between an average and excellent SAT score can make all the difference in a student’s application. For an improved test that is meant to “measure the essential ingredients for college and career readiness and success”, international student scores are still highly correlated to unfair factors such as income, brute memorization, and corrupted test prep centers.