Assessment

Was the SAT Leaked? Six Questions Answered

By Catherine Gewertz — September 19, 2018 3 min read
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The August administration of the SAT was shrouded in a bit of controversy this year. Here’s what you need to know about what happened—or didn’t happen.

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 reused 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 reusing test questions put his daughter at a “distinct disadvantage” on the exam.

His argument, in a nutshell, is that test-preparation companies, which charge their clients to prepare them for the college-entrance exam, 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 Aug. 26.

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

The College Board hasn’t acknowledged reusing tests or test questions. Neither has the ACT. (Education Week 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 reusing 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.

As anticipated, not all scores from the August test dates were posted online Sept. 7. College Board spokeswoman Jaslee Carayol said in an email that the company is using the same procedures it uses after every test, including “conducting a comprehensive statistical analysis” of some scores.

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

Analysis of the remaining scores could take up to six weeks, Carayol said.

There’s also 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.

Is this the first brouhaha about test recycling?

No. A 2016 investigation by the Reuters news agency found multiple occasions of SAT versions being reused, 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 reuse 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.
A version of this article appeared in the September 19, 2018 edition of Education Week as Was the SAT Leaked? Six Questions Answered

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