The last couple of weeks have seen some new developments in the most recent SAT scandal. Initial reports stated that some questions from the August 2018 test administered in the U.S. had been leaked in Asia before the exam. Mercedes Schneider did a little bit of digging, however, and discovered that wasn’t exactly the case. In reality, the problem goes a lot deeper—and in this case, the problem doesn’t lie with Asian testing centers or students:
What appears to have happened is that someone from the inside of the College Board leaked the news that the August 2018 SAT was actually the October 2017 version used in Asia, and since the test and answers had already been made public in Asia, it was not difficult for some individuals to leverage such news to their advantage.
I was even able to locate a portion of the reading test online. (Click here to view.)
In the Twitter exchange below, an Asian test taker refers to the situation, not as a “leak,” but as “hindsight bias.” (EM note: I’m having some trouble posting images, but the full Twitter exchange is available on Mercedes’s blog.)
This mess might well result in invalidation of the August 2018 SAT. Some test takers are seeking invalidation; others are dreading the idea.
One issue is clear: The principal culprit in this chaos is the College Board.
The Washington Post is reporting that only certain questions from the October 2017 Asia test were recycled, but references to the “test book” in the Twitter exchange imply that the entire test was reused.
Either way, this level of carelessness is hard to fathom: it’s one thing to re-administer a non-released exam, or to use some questions from a non-released exam as “anchor items” to ensure scoring consistency. It’s something very different to reuse an entire exam—or even just a significant number of questions— for which answers and explanations have already been publicly released.
Has the College Board never heard of the Internet? Do its employees think that students in Asia do not talk to students in the United States, or that students from Asia do not fly to the United States to take their exams (as has become more common since the number of international exams was reduced)? Do they imagine that monitoring College Confidential and Reddit for illicit discussions about test questions will actually prevent students from exchanging information via other means. Could they not imagine that a handful of students might even be re-taking an exam to which they already knew the answers?
A more plausible explanation is that the workers at the College Board could imagine all of these things perfectly well; they simply didn’t care enough to do anything about them. Alternately, it’s possible that lower-level employees noticed the situation had the potential to be problematic but either kept their mouths shut for fear of provoking the ire of the powers that be, or made some attempt to raise the issue but were shut down by people higher up. Whatever actually transpired, the important part is that nothing was done to head off the situation.
Unlike previous scandals, this one doesn’t seem to be going away quite so easily. Inside Higher Ed reports that the family of a Florida student who took the August exam has filed a class-action lawsuit against the College Board:
The suit charges that the College Board knowingly went ahead with the use of recycled questions, despite knowing of the security risk the use of such questions creates. The suit notes that Reuters in 2016 published an in-depth report on SAT security problems, with a focus on the way versions of the test leak in Asia, and that these versions contain questions that are later recycled on other tests.
“The College Board is well aware of this security crisis, and since October 2014, has delayed issuing scores in Asia six times and canceled an exam sitting in Asia based on evidence that the test material has been exposed to the public,” the suit says. “However, according to Reuters, ‘the breakdown in security is more pervasive than the College Board has publicly disclosed.’ Indeed, in addition to the publicly acknowledged security breaches announced by the College Board, Reuters identified eight occasions since late 2013 in which test material was circulating online before the SAT was administered overseas.”
Among the charges the suit makes against the College Board are breach of contract (failing to provide a fair test), breach of good faith (failing to provide a fair test), negligence (permitting reported security problems), negligent misrepresentation (claiming that security issues were addressed), gross negligence (failing to address security problems) and unjust enrichment (charging fees to test takers while not assuring a fair test).
Even if the College Board manages to shirk legal responsibility for this one, that’s quite a list of allegations.
So the real question is, I think, why the College Board would behave this way, especially given how much students have riding on the SAT. The simple answer, I suspect, is because it can. After all, the company has been sued before, apparently without any permanent damage.
In addition, there is only a minuscule chance (if, indeed, there is any chance at all) that students in traditional SAT regions will begin defecting to the ACT in large enough numbers to put a real dent in the College Board’s market share. A small number of savvy students/parents may follow the scandal closely and switch tests as a result, but it is difficult to imagine such a thing happening on a mass scale. Yes, there have been a couple of stories, but this isn’t exactly a scandal of epic proportion. Teenagers and their parents have many other things to worry about; if the SAT remains the most popular and/or convenient option, the vast majority students will continue to take their chances with it.
Furthermore, the College Board has already achieved its primary goal with the test redesign—namely, snatching a significant portion of the state testing market away from the ACT. Tens of thousands of students are now guaranteed College Board customers, regardless of how poorly the exam is managed. In addition, at nearly $100/pop, AP tests are the College Board’s real cash cow — to some extent, the PSAT and SAT ($47.50 without writing, $64.50 with) now function as lures to “help students discover their AP potential.” Given the sheer number of AP exams available, it is very much in the College Board’s interest to steer students toward this much larger and more expensive class of products. In that context, it would make sense for the College Board to view the Saturday SAT administrations as a secondary concern.
Perhaps at some point in the future, the College Board will indeed find itself embroiled in a scandal so serious that its dominance is threatened. But I’m guessing that this one isn’t it.