College & Workforce Readiness

College Board SAT Designer Drawn Into FBI Investigation

By Catherine Gewertz — September 02, 2016 5 min read
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A former College Board official who had a lead role in designing the new SAT—and then became an ardent critic of the process—has become part of an FBI investigation into possible security breaches in the college-entrance exam. Documents outlining his role appear to have been put under court seal.

Manuel Alfaro, who was the executive director of assessment design and development at the College Board when he was fired in February 2015, wrote in a post on his LinkedIn account on Aug. 27 that the FBI searched his Maryland home the previous day and seized computer equipment.

The search came after months of public accusations by Alfaro on LinkedIn and Twitter that the College Board skipped important steps in the process in developing items for the new SAT, resulting in a test that was not up to industry standard. The College Board has strongly denied Alfaro’s claims, calling them “baseless.”

The news agency Reuters, which has been running a multi-part series based on its investigation into systematic cheating on the SAT and ACT, reported that the FBI raid was part of an investigation into computer intrusion and theft against an unidentified “victim corporation” involving “confidential or proprietary information,” including tests, test forms, and internal emails. In part five of its series, published Aug. 3, Reuters revealed that it had obtained about 400 unpublished questions from the newly redesigned SAT, which debuted in March. Reuters said it got the items from “a person with access to material for upcoming versions of the redesigned exam.”

Education Week emailed the Baltimore field office of the FBI to obtain the affidavit and other documents supporting the search warrant for Alfaro’s home. Within three minutes, that inquiry was relayed to the Washington field office. Katherine Zackel, a spokeswoman for that office, said in an email that she couldn’t comment, and added that she didn’t think Education Week would find anything in court records, either.

Without referring specifically to the Alfaro case, she said that prosecutors or judges sometimes put affidavits—which detail law enforcement officers’ reasons for a search—under court seal “for operational necessity, the safety of individuals, or the privacy of individuals pending court decisions,” or other factors.

Questions Raised About SAT Design Process

Alfaro, who also worked as a senior test developer for the American Institutes for Research, has been trying in several ways to draw attention to his claims of an allegedly poor SAT test-design process at the College Board. He started a White House petition on “We the People” that has gotten 218 signatures. He calls on the federal government to investigate the College Board, but provides no detail for his claim that the “SAT is a sham.” Details for his allegations have appeared in a string of public posts on LinkedIn, and on his Twitter feed, where he goes by the handle @SATInsider.

Across those postings, Alfaro’s central argument is that the College Board often skipped an important part of the test design: review by an external panel at two key points in the process. The College Board’s publicly posted process (below, and on page 200 of this document) calls for outside review before items are field-tested, and again, before they are put into final, operational test forms. (In test design, it isn’t uncommon for items to be revised after field-testing.) Alfaro says that sometimes items weren’t reviewed by the external panel until they were already assembled into final test forms.

He also contends, in a LinkedIn post May 20, that many test items are “extensively revised/rewritten” at the latest stage, once they’re undergoing final review in operational test forms. This, he says, is contrary to College Board representations that operational items are revised only rarely.

In one late-stage review, Alfaro writes in a June 9 LinkedIn post, the feedback from the committee was “scathing,” with one member writing an 11-page missive to the College Board saying the items were “the worst items he had ever seen,” Alfaro contended. The post does not provide the identity of that committee member, or link to the letter he allegedly sent the College Board.

He also argues that the College Board is misrepresenting its test to seven states that use it as their federally required accountability test when it claims that it designed the exam according to industry standard and its own publicly stated process. States use public funds to buy tests they use for accountability.

In a post on LinkedIn Aug. 28, Alfaro tries to get the attention of residents of Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Michigan, and New Hampshire, urging them to force state officials to investigate “fraud” by the College Board. He says he wrote letters May 7 to top officials in their states to inform them about his experiences with the SAT design, and offered to meet with state investigators, but his offers were not accepted, nor was he asked to supply more information.

Instead, Alfaro got a letter from a law firm representing the College Board on May 10, saying it was looking into his allegations, he wrote on LinkedIn. He declined to meet with those lawyers, and aims instead to try to prove his case to the state departments of education, or to the College Board’s board of trustees, but has not found an open door to do so, Alfaro wrote.

Reuters sent inquiries to the seven states’ departments of education, it said in its Aug. 26 story. Four didn’t respond, and New Hampshire declined comment. Michigan spokesman Bill DeSessa said the state decided not to investigate Alfaro’s claims after it checked with the College Board. Connecticut education department spokeswoman Kelly Donnelly told Reuters the state wouldn’t be taking any action because it decided Alfaro’s claims were “replete with hyperbole, but scant on actual facts.”

College Board spokesman Zach Goldberg told Reuters after the FBI search at Alfaro’s home that the College Board is “pleased that this crime is being pursued aggressively.”

In an email to EdWeek, Goldberg said that Alfaro is trying to “create a story about the development of the new SAT that is completely at odds with reality. In redesigning the SAT, the College Board has made an unprecedented commitment to transparency and has published our test specifications, which include the test development process. Any claims that counter the published information are patently false.”

The New York-based company has “reached out privately to Mr. Alfaro to address his claims,” Goldberg said, but he has “declined to engage with us to discuss his concerns. Instead, he has communicated with online posts built on false assertions.”

Goldberg declined to detail the reasons for Alfaro’s departure from the College Board, citing the ongoing FBI investigation.

Photo credit: Getty Images

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