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ACT and SAT Security Measures Found to Deter Cheaters

Administrators of the ACT and SAT report that new security measures put in place to reduce cheating are working.

Since 2012, both college-entrance exams have required students to upload a photo upon registration and present the photo ticket to the proctor at the time of the exam.

Officials from ACT and Educational Testing Services, which administers College Board's SAT, say incidents of impersonation have been cut in half since the new procedure was put in place.

The new process was rolled out following a cheating scandal in Nassau County, N.Y., where students paid people to take the exam for them.

Rachel Watkins-Schoenig, ACT's assistant vice president for test security, said implementing the photo ID was a big effort, but test centers were receptive. "Proctors really want to do a good job and appreciate the tool," she says.

Watkins-Schoenig, along with Raymond Nicosia, the director of testing integrity at ETS, are doing a presentation on the effectiveness of test security tools at a conference on testing in California next week.

In addition to the new photo procedure, ACT has also dedicated a hotline for students to report concerns about breaches, such as copying or test theft.  The Iowa City, Iowa-based organization has promoted awareness of the hotline and distributed posters at testing centers. Despite some concerns that high school students might report false claims, Watkins-Schoenig says calls have been credible and there has been an increase in reporting compared to when the calls where fielded on a general ethics line for all tests.

"There is no silver bullet to address test security," says Watkins-Schoenig, "It takes a number of different layers. It's important not to rely on one or two tools."

Nicosia notes that more than 99 percent of students who take the SAT follow rules and take the test honestly. "Occasionally, there will be a few people who try to circumvent or game it," he says. "It's not going away."

ETS, based in Princeton, N.J., has an office with 60 employees working on testing security. A survey of  24,000 students at 70 high schools by Donald McCabe, a business professor from Rutgers University in New Jersey, found that 64 percent of students admitted to cheating on a test, 58 percent admitted to plagiarism, and 95 percent said they participated in some form of cheating, whether it was on a test, plagiarism or copying homework.

One of the biggest threats to test security is use of the cellphone, says Nicosia. To address this concern,  ETS testing centers have started using a wand to detect if a test taker has a device upon entering.

Since there is not the same capability in 6,000 SAT high school testing centers to check cellphones, students are told to turn off their phones. Students will not receive a score if they are caught using a phone or if a phone rings or makes any sound during a test, says Nicosia. "If students are seen with a phone, they will not get a score," he says. No claims of an emergency call, no disruptions  are allowed.

The advances with technology and miniaturized devices are challenges for testing companies, both officials acknowledge.

"The reality is most of our students are honest and they just want a fair shot," says Watkins-Schoenig. "There are individuals who are going to be determined [to cheat]. It's a small percentage, but not a percentage you can ignore."

The move to computerized tests for the SAT and ACT will have pros and cons for security, notes Nicosia.  There will no longer be concern about tampering with shipping of paper books and there will be a chance to get more information electronically about the test takers. 

Nicosia's message to testing companies gathered to hear his presentation next week: "You have to be prepared. People will try to cheat.  It's not a maybe."

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