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College Board Aims at Test-Prep Tutors in Barring March 5 SAT-Takers

By Catherine Gewertz — March 02, 2016 7 min read
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In an unprecedented step designed to ward off cheating, the College Board has kicked many registered test-takers out of Saturday’s debut administration of the redesigned SAT. Nearly all of those excluded work for test-prep companies.

In a Monday email, the College Board informed some March 5 test-takers that they were being moved to the May 7 test date for “security” reasons, to weed out people who might not be taking the test “for its intended purpose,” to obtain financial aid or scholarships, or to apply to college. It offered a phone number and email address to appeal the date transfer.

The College Board refused to say whether it analyzed registration data for factors that would suggest test-takers were adults working for test-prep companies. Spokeswoman Kate Levin said only that the College Board looked at how often, and when, those registered for the March 5 test had taken the SAT before.

About 277,000 students registered to take the March SAT, Levin said. She wouldn’t say exactly how many were transferred to other dates, only that it was fewer than 1 percent. An additional 186,000 students registered for the SAT through “school day” programs used by districts and states to offer the exam to all students, or require them to take it.

The mass transfers sparked a blizzard of anecdotes on listservs and social media by tutoring professionals recounting tales of being booted from the Saturday SAT. Only a few reports surfaced about real students kicked out of the session. “All our students are locked in, no transfers,” said Jed Applerouth, who owns Applerouth Tutoring Services, based in Atlanta.

“We’re absolutely sure that the cut was made based on age,” said Adam Ingersoll, a co-founder of the Compass Education Group, a tutoring company based in Los Angeles. He said that he and his tutors are all 25 or older, and all were excluded, a pattern that held true as he compared notes with colleagues across the country. One colleague told him a story about a 25-year-old man in the Navy who signed up to take the SAT for the first time on March 5 and was excluded.

Unexpected Items on SAT

That wasn’t the only controversy dogging the new SAT this week. Word was seeping out that the exam, which appeared as four sections in the College Board’s practice tests, would actually include a fifth section for students who opted not to take the essay portion. That section, tutoring professionals had heard, would include what the industry calls “pretest” items, questions that are in final development and wouldn’t count in a student’s score.

This led tutoring professionals to cry foul, arguing, as the Princeton Review’s James S. Murphy did in the Washington Post, that it’s unfair to subject students to an experimental section without disclosing it in advance. The College Board has been frank about including an experimental section on its test for decades. But it didn’t make public mention of it when the SAT was redesigned, so many thought it had been eliminated.

The presence of pretest items on the March 5 exam was discovered little by little, as test administrators paged through technical manuals, and in personal conversations between employees of test-prep companies and College Board staffers.

Education Week asked the College Board to share details about the pretest questions in Saturday’s test, but spokeswoman Levin would say only that “on some test dates in some test centers, test-takers will take some pretest items that are not included in computing their scores. These items may appear in any of the test sections.” The fifth section “may include either pretest or operational test items,” Levin said.

The lack of advance disclosure about the pretest items prompted criticism that the College Board wasn’t fulfilling a promise to increase transparency about its operations. “What other surprises are hidden in the new SAT?” asked Bob Schaeffer, the public education director for FairTest, a group that opposes high-stakes standardized testing.

The new SAT features major changes, including focusing more deeply on fewer math concepts, eliminating obscure vocabulary words, making the essay optional, and switching its score range to 400-1600 from 600-2400.

Trying to Stem Cheating

Even as they criticized the College Board for barring professional test-takers from the March 5 SAT, test-prep officials acknowledged that the company does have a duty to ward off cheating by their colleagues. Tutoring companies have long sent employees in to take the SAT or ACT, so they can better advise clients on what to expect. But some, including large-scale efforts in Asia, have taken that access to a different level, sending armies of employees in to memorize subsets of questions, so the test can effectively be reconstructed.

The ACT’s testing rules specify that it can exclude professional test-takers. But the College Board’s security instructions for test-takers say only that “there is never any point in time at which you are allowed to discuss exam content” unless the test is one of the handful each year that are released publicly, through the company’s question-and-answer service. Unlike the May 7 SAT, the March 5 test is not one of those that will be released, which kicked the College Board’s security analysis into higher gear.

Testing critics relished the idea that perhaps the College Board had barred test-prep companies from the March 5 exam in order to minimize the advantage that their clients—typically children of wealthier families who can pay for tutoring—receive. “It’s a plausible argument,” Schaeffer said, since the company has worked in the last few years to eliminate access barriers for lower-income students, expanding access to test-fee waivers, and offering them free preparation through the Khan Academy.

Questions about Demand for New SAT

Some in the test-preparation field surmised that the College Board might have felt it needed to rebalance the testing pool to avoid overrepresentation of test-prep employees, who are skilled at taking the exams.

Most counselors and tutors have been advising students to skip the first administration of the new test and “wait til they get the kinks worked out,” said Applerouth. And testing companies were eager to get a look at the new test, officials of several told EdWeek. Applerouth had 15-20 tutors set to take the test on Saturday, but all were transferred to other dates.

Tutors said they assumed the College Board could exclude their scores to avoid distorting the test’s norm, so keeping then out of the test would have been unnecessary.

Controlling the Narrative?

In the tutoring world, the most widely held view about why the College Board excluded them was the most cynical one: It wanted to shield its new test from criticism. The College Board had already weathered attacks for returning PSAT scores later than promised, for a scoring screwup on the SAT last June, and for offering fewer practice tests for the new SAT than had been promised.

“One theory is that they looked at the registration lists, saw all the older people with histories of taking the test before, and said, it’s a looming PR disaster because dozens of people will blog and write tear-downs, and we don’t need that for the first administration of the test,” Ingersoll said.

Tutors argued that their presence in the testing rooms helps more students than just those who pay steep fees for their services. Some pointed out that in addition to working with those students, they participate in programs that allow them to share their expertise for free with low-income students.

Test-prep officials also noted that they write about the college-entrance tests in blogs and books, and can hold testing companies accountable for unfair practices.

“People like me are in the best position to look closely and critique what might be going on,” said Ned Johnson, the founder of PrepMatters, based in Bethesda, Md. “Who’s going to know that better?”

Applerouth said he was planning to share his experience with the new SAT through a webinar, but he cancelled it when he was kicked out of the Saturday session.

Ingersoll said he doesn’t expect sympathy for being excluded from the Saturday test, since he knows the public views the work of his industry as a driver of income-based inequities.

“Everyone knows test prep is an advantage for the advantaged, so I don’t expect a sympathetic ear,” he said. “But I do think we perform a useful watchdog function” by being allowed to take the test.

Photo: Katerina Maylock, with Capital Educators, teaches a college test preparation class in January at Holton Arms School in Bethesda, Md. —Alex Brandon/AP-File

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A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.