College & Workforce Readiness

Test-Prep Companies Barred From SAT Debut

By Catherine Gewertz — March 08, 2016 4 min read
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In an unprecedented step designed to ward off cheating, the College Board kicked many registered test-takers out of the March 5 debut administration of the redesigned SAT. Nearly all those excluded work for test-preparation companies.

In a Feb. 29 email, the College Board informed some March 5 test-takers that they were being moved to the May 7 test date for “security” reasons. Officials said the aim was to weed out people who might not be taking the test “for its intended purpose” of obtaining financial aid or scholarships or applying to college. The email included a phone number and email address for appeals.

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, registrants 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 less 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. By press time, the company had not supplied comparable March 2015 registration figures.

Few Students Shifted

The mass transfers sparked a blizzard of anecdotes on listservs and social media by tutors recounting tales of being booted from the exam. Only a few reports surfaced of 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. All his tutors were barred from the March 5 test date.

“We’re absolutely sure that the cut was made based on age,” said Adam Ingersoll, a co-founder of the Compass Education Group, a Los Angeles tutoring company. 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 25-year-old U.S. Navy man set to take his first SAT on March 5 was also excluded.

That wasn’t the only controversy dogging the new SAT last 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. That section, tutors heard, would include what the industry calls “pretest” items: questions that are in final development and won’t count in a student’s score.

This led tutors 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 a experimental items without warning. The College Board has been frank about including an experimental section for decades. But it didn’t make public mention of it when the SAT was redesigned, so many thought it was 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.

Asked about pretest questions on the March 5 test, spokeswoman Levin said 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,” she said.

The lack of advance disclosure of the pretest items prompted criticism that the College Board wasn’t keeping its promise to be more transparent. “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

Test-prep officials acknowledged that the College Board has a duty to avert 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 gone further, sending armies of employees in to memorize subsets of questions in order to reconstruct the test.

The ACT’s testing rules say that the company can exclude professional test-takers. But the College Board’s instructions 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, which kicked the College Board’s security analysis into higher gear.

Testing critics relished the possibility that the College Board barred test-prep companies from the March 5 exam to minimize the advantage that their clients—typically children of wealthier families—receive.

“It’s a plausible argument,” Schaeffer said, since the company has worked to eliminate access barriers for lower-income students.

Some surmised that the College Board feared registration would be low, since counselors have been advising students to skip the test’s debut, and sought to avoid overrepresentation of skilled test-takers from tutoring groups.

Many in the tutoring world advanced another, more cynical theory: The College Board wanted to shield its new test from criticism.

“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.

A version of this article appeared in the March 09, 2016 edition of Education Week as College Board Bars Test-Prep Companies From SAT Debut

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