The SAT Mess That's Not Going Away

Class action suit says College Board's use of recycled questions hurt all test takers. Some push for scores from August to be abandoned; advocates for international students say they are being scapegoated.

September 4, 2018
 

The SAT periodically faces controversies, such as when the mathematics test given in June was widely seen as easier than normal and -- courtesy of the curve -- resulted in many students being shocked by low scores. Outrage spread on social media, but after a week or so, many move on. But this year, another controversy has emerged before people have stopped complaining about the last one.

There are signs that the latest SAT controversy may not pass easily. The August SAT was based on an SAT given in Asia in October. The use of "recycled questions" became known to the public almost as soon as the administration of the August SAT was over -- as reports spread that some students from Asia had taken the test in the United States and may well have had an advantage. The College Board responded, as it usually does to such reports, by saying that it had good security measures in place and would block scores of any who had access to the questions in advance.

The controversy is not quieting.

On Thursday in Florida, a class action lawsuit was filed against the College Board on behalf of the father of young woman who took the August SAT. The father and the daughter are not named, and the suit seeks damages on behalf of all who took the SAT in August.

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).

There was no international SAT in August. But as the suit notes, that has led wealthy students from China and elsewhere to travel to the United States to take the SAT. So students from China and elsewhere in Asia with no knowledge of the questions that ended up being on the August SAT may well have seen them in advance.

A College Board spokeswoman said that it has received the lawsuit and is reviewing it.

The lawsuit is not the only sign of problems for the College Board.

U.S. Representative Mimi Walters, a California Republican, last week released a statement demanding more information from the College Board.

"Each year, California high school students put a tremendous amount of hard work and dedication in the college application process. For many of these students, the SAT plays a major role in the highly competitive college admissions process," she said. "Any effort to place certain students at an advantage over others is fundamentally unfair and must be stopped. All students deserve a level playing field, and the College Board has a duty to immediately investigate these claims and safeguard the integrity of this important test. I am currently looking into these troubling allegations and will continue to advocate for the Orange County students negatively affected by these alleged actions."

More than 2,000 people have signed a petition demanding that August SAT scores be canceled to avoid unfairness to those who took the test without access to test questions in advance.

And news coverage of the problems with the August SAT continues to grow. After Inside Higher Ed first reported on the situation, articles appeared in such publications as the Los Angeles Times, USA Today and Teen Vogue.

Jed Applerouth, founder of an eponymous national test-prep service, said that he noticed a change with the June scoring controversy. "The public outcry was certainly the strongest reaction I have ever seen after 17 years in the space. I was amazed by the level of student involvement," he said.

Now he is seeing more concerns. "We have some international clients and [independent counselors] who are very concerned that their SAT scores may be canceled on this or future tests and are contemplating shifting towards the ACT with the new digital format, which should be relatively more secure," he said.

Part of the problem, he said, is that he's not sure the particular security breach was actually new.

"I personally don't think this is worse than any prior breach," he said. "I anticipate security issues for a paper-based test which reuses test forms across geographies and time zones. There will be continued security issues until a more secure testing system is adopted. The ACT is way ahead here, migrating students to digital testing and eventually to computer adaptive testing."

What may be new, he said, is the intensity of public discussion. "Each incident leads to stronger public reactions," he said. "With social media, the response is swifter and louder than at any previous time. Stories move more quickly, petitions are signed and shared with greater speed. Mistakes are costlier in this day and age when so many students and parents are connected and ready to broadcast their sentiments. The village is certainly much more vocal!"

Conflicting Demands on What to Do

To take Applerouth's metaphor, the village may be vocal, but it is not speaking with one voice.

Many students online (and in the petition) are demanding that August scores be canceled. Some have suggested that colleges could send a message to the College Board by not accepting August scores. With the lesson of the June results in mind, students are fearful that an advantage for even a small group of students who saw the test while in Asia could result in a curve unfavorable to everyone else.

But just as many students appear fearful that the College Board will cancel scores (although the College Board has given no indication that it will do anything of the kind). Timing is a big issue here. Many students who aspire to attend competitive-admissions colleges take the SAT in August because they may have been disappointed in an earlier score, and this is seen as a key date on which to show improvement.

There are other dates in the fall, but this is the date for which results would allow a student to know if she had competitive scores for applying early decision. And this is the date for which scores might indicate to some that they could go for "reach" colleges or might need to focus more on realistic options. So many of these students don't want scores canceled, and counselors report that some are in a panic about the possibility that this could happen.

And there are particular concerns for international students.

Those who believe that there was unfairness in using recycled questions on the August SAT note that students from Asia came to the United States to take the test. Some of the social media discussion references "Chinese cheaters" in ways that concern those who work with students from China. These students didn't know what questions would be used on the SAT and played no role in leaking the old version of the test, international counselors note.

Assuming that someone from China or Korea had an unfair advantage would be unfair to them, they say. Further, they note that because the College Board has cut back on international administrations of the SAT, the number of students from abroad who come to the United State for the SAT appears to be going up. These students have the same timeline as American students in needing to know their scores.

Anne K. W. Richardson of the American School in London is chair of the International Initiatives Committee of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling and chair of the International ACAC Ad-Hoc Committee on Testing. In those capacities, she has been hearing from counselors all over the world about the August SAT, and fears that international students are being scapegoated.

Via email, she said that "what is important to understand is that there is a lack of equity and access for international students to several of the tests required by colleges and universities throughout the world. International students and U.S. citizens who live abroad do not have the same access to testing that domestic students have. They have significantly higher fees to pay and many of them have to travel distances and stay overnight to take the tests … This is a significant equity and access issue for both international students and U.S. students abroad … All of this, coupled with the anxieties that testing brings, has made the August test date a focus and brings many international students who can afford to do so to the U.S. to take the test."

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