College & Workforce Readiness

Here’s What You Need to Know About the Latest SAT Controversy

By Catherine Gewertz — September 05, 2018 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print


You might have heard rumors that there were problems with the SAT exam administered in August. Here’s what you need to know about the controversy.

What’s going on? Were students cheating on the August SAT?

It depends on how you define “cheating.” The focus of this scandal isn’t really whether test-takers did anything wrong. It’s more about what the College Board did, and whether that gave some students an advantage.

What allegedly happened on the August SAT was that the College Board re-used an SAT exam that had been given last fall in Asia. Questions and answers from that test had reportedly been circulating online for many weeks before the August test dates in the United States.

Why are you saying “allegedly?”

The legal language tips you off to one of the events of this controversy. The father of a young woman who took the SAT in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Aug. 25 filed a lawsuit against the College Board and the Educational Testing Service, which builds the SAT. He claims that the practice of re-using test questions put his daughter at a “distinct disadvantage” on the exam.

His argument, in a nutshell, is that test-preparation companies know how to find the previously used test questions online, so they can give their clients a leg up on the test by letting them practice ahead of time.

The father—known only as John Doe in the lawsuit—is asking the court to make the lawsuit a class-action, representing all students nationwide who might have been at a similar disadvantage when they took the SAT on Aug. 25 or 26.

Well, is it true? Does the College Board re-use tests? And if they do, doesn’t ACT do it, too?

The College Board hasn’t acknowledged re-using tests or test questions. Neither has the ACT. (We asked both companies, and both declined to answer questions about test forms, citing security.) When allegations about test recycling have arisen before, the College Board responded by saying that it has adequate security measures in place to keep the playing field level.

The company announced additional security measures in 2017, but said nothing about re-using test questions.

Lots of anecdotal information bounces around about question recycling, though. One test-prep coach said on a listserv recently that one of her clients went online and easily located a copy of the SAT that was given in Asia last fall, and that 20 other clients said it was the same test as the one they took in the United States this August.

Another such buzz involved the ACT. According to one report, students were saying on the College Confidential blog that the June 2016 ACT they took was the same as one that had been given in 2015.

Have any students’ scores been invalidated because of test recycling in August?

Not yet. But as Inside Higher Ed reported, there’s a petition circulating that seeks to invalidate all U.S. scores on the August SAT. More than 2,100 people have signed it so far.

The College Board told Education Week in an email that it anticipates “most” multiple-choice scores will be posted online on Sept. 7 as scheduled. Company spokeswoman Jaslee Carayol said that the company is using the same procedures it uses after every test, including “conducting a comprehensive statistical analysis” of some scores.

If it determines that some students “have gained an unfair advantage,” she said, the College Board “will take appropriate actions, including cancelling test scores and, in some cases, prohibiting them from taking another College Board assessment.”

UPDATE: Not all scores from the August test dates were posted Friday, as anticipated. Carayol said that analysis of the remaining scores could take up to six weeks. Holding some scores for analysis after each SAT administration is “standard procedure,” she said.

Is this the first brouhaha about test recycling?

Nope. A 2016 investigation by the Reuters news agency found multiple occasions of SATs that had been administered before, with questions and answers circulating on social media before the exam. It was part of a larger Reuters report about repeated security breaches on the SAT. The investigation detailed similar leaks of the ACT.

Why do testing companies re-use test questions, anyway? Can’t they just provide fresh questions for each test?

Writing test questions is one of the most labor-intensive—and thus cost-intensive—parts of the test-development process. The questions have to be drafted, reviewed, revised, tried out on students, and revised again. Developing more questions means spending more money.

Reuters reported that according to the College Board, if it used tests only once, it would have to pass the increased costs on to customers, as much as doubling what students have to pay to take the exam.

Education Week Librarian Holly Peele contributed to this report.

Photo: Getty Images

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