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EdWeek Market Brief: College Board Scrutinized for Security Breaches on SAT Test in Asia

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By guest blogger Sean Cavanagh. Cross-posted from EdWeek Market Brief.

The College Board's administration of the SAT in Asia, undermined by cheating in the past, has been plagued by more problems than the testing organization has previously acknowledged, according to newly published stories by Reuters.

The U.S.-based College Board has coped with the improper sharing of test information in Asian nations in recent years, causing it in some cases to cancel exams and delay issuing test scores.

But the Reuters story says the security breakdowns have been more pervasive than was previously known. The news agency says it identified eight occasions since late 2013 when test material was being improperly circulated online before the SAT was given in Asia.

Reuters also cites a confidential PowerPoint presentation by the College Board that says the testing group had documented widespread security woes in June of 2013, after nixing an SAT exam slated to be given in South Korea.

What's more, the news organization reported that the presentation acknowledged that "half of the SATs in inventory at the time" had been "compromised," meaning leaked in whole or in part. Four of the exams were compromised by an unnamed Chinese website.

Ultimately, the test breaches call into question the legitimacy of some of the test scores from Asian applicants to U.S. college, the story notes. Applications from students in Asia have risen over time. Many of those students are attractive to American institutions, Reuters says, because most don't qualify for financial aid, and thus pay full price.

The College Board recently redesigned the SAT, and the new version of the test was given in the United States in March. The revised test will be given internationally for the first time in May, College Board spokesman Zach Goldberg told Marketplace K-12.

In the United States, stronger copyright laws appear to make the sharing of test information more difficult, the stories say. But the College Board was sufficiently worried about cheating earlier this month to kick a number of test-takers out of an administration of the newly revamped SAT. Nearly all of those excluded worked for test-prep companies, as my colleague Catherine Gewertz reported.

The College Board said those dismissed from the test were removed for "security" reasons, and it acted to remove test-takers who were not taking the exam "for its intended purpose."

In one of Reuters' stories, the agency reports that test-prep companies posted people outside the March 5 debut of the new exam-and that they collected information from test-takers that was later circulated. In the course of its reporting, Reuters said it saw entire sections from the exam given that day.

Instances of students' alleged attempted sharing of test content have erupted periodically in the United States. Last year, Pearson was heavily criticized amid revelations its oversaw the monitoring of social media and websites to try to gain intel on the sharing of common-core testing content. (Pearson said it was contractually obligated by states to monitor social media to protect the integrity of the tests; and some testing experts said the practice was relatively common.)

The College Board's use of recycled testing material is identified in the story as a security gap that allowed for the trading of test information, Reuters said. That information, the publication reports, eventually gets fed to "test-prep" centers in Asia, some of which are evidently thriving on the promise that they know what's going to show up on upcoming tests.

Here's how the story describes the illicit information flow:

"Recycling enables cram schools to gather reading passages and questions from past tests, then figure out the answers and package that material for their clients to study. The information comes from many sources. Test-prep centers have associates take the exam and memorize what they've seen. Some people even photograph the test booklet. The cram schools also analyze test information that American teenagers share on Internet forums. At times, cram schools have obtained actual SAT tests."

In response to a request from Marketplace K-12, College Board officials pointed to a statement the organization issued this week, and an earlier letter written to Reuters, laying out steps the testing organization said it had taken to tighten security. But College Board officials also described the challenges they faced in stark terms:

"Like many technology and publishing companies who are protecting patents and copyrights, we're facing cartel-like companies in China and other countries that will stop at nothing to enrich themselves," the College Board said. "These bad actors will continue to lie, cheat, and steal to the detriment of students who work hard and play by the rules."

In their letter to Reuters, written by College Board executives Stacy Caldwell and Cynthia Schmeiser, the board described a series of possible security breaches in South Korea in 2013, China in 2015, and China and Macau in 2016.

But the responses to potential security breakdowns varied greatly. In the 2013 case in South Korea, College Board officials, certain that testing material had been pilfered, said they canceled the test administration because there wasn't enough time to give the test in a different form, and cheating seemed to be widespread.

In China in 2015, College Board officials said they received a tip about cheating prior to giving the test. But the information wasn't specific, and the level of "chatter" about the test online was not unusual. Based on a lack of information, that SAT went forward with the test.

"With the new SAT, we will continue to take bold actions to stop cheating and theft, which present critical opportunities to all who are working to expand educational opportunities to international students," the College Board said in its letter. "We stand by the actions we took to protect the integrity of the exam."

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