SAT test cancelled in China, Macau over cheating fears

The United States firm that owns the SAT, a college entrance exam accepted by many US colleges and universities, cancelled plans to administer the test this weekend at centres in China and Macau following concerns that some students may have obtained information about questions in advance.

Tests scheduled to be administered Saturday in Bahrain and Kazakhstan also were cancelled. Students in Hong Kong sat for the test Saturday as scheduled.

The cancellations mark the latest chapter in a string of test security problems for the College Board, the non-profit group that owns the test, and the Educational Testing Service, a non-profit that administers it.

In an email to students registered to take the test, the College Board apologised for the "significant inconvenience" for students who had "worked hard to prepare". The organisation will email students this coming week with details about a make-up test, College Board spokesman Zachary Goldberg said.

"This is part of our ongoing efforts to ensure the integrity of the SAT and to deliver valid scores to colleges and universities. We take a range of action steps to identify and mitigate [against security breaches]," he said.

The College Board also emailed an apology to counsellors, noting that disclosing details about its investigation and security measures "would compromise the effectiveness and integrity of those measures".

In May 2013, the College Board shut down the administration of the SAT and SAT Subject Tests throughout South Korea after learning that test questions had been leaked. In 2014 and 2015, it delayed reporting of SAT scores from students in Asia and Korea multiple times as it investigated evidence of cheating.

Last spring, US federal prosecutors charged 15 Chinese citizens for their role in a testing scheme where international students paid as much as US$6,000 to have someone else sit for the exam in their place.

Source of the problem

The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a US non-profit and long-time critic of standardised testing, says the two testing firms themselves are to blame for their test security problems. Four times in the past year, including last week, it has received copies of what later turned out to be the SAT administered overseas.

"If we had a full set of questions, we have to assume that the full test was available," said Bob Schaeffer, public education director for the group, known informally as FairTest. He said recent posts to an online chat site Saturday appeared to show that the exam administered overseas on Saturday was a recycled copy of one that US students had taken in December 2015.

The group has been tracking the phenomenon, based on tips from confidential sources showing that coaching companies, particularly in China and Korea, are selling complete copies of upcoming SAT exams.

Schaeffer said the source of the problem is that the exams administered overseas are versions that have previously been administered to students in the United States. That leaves open the possibility that someone could either obtain recently administered exams or exam questions or piece together questions and answers by monitoring online discussion boards where recent test takers share thoughts about a just-administered test.

"The College Board and its admissions exam partners at the Educational Testing Service have, effectively, encouraged cheating through their consistent pattern of re-using in Asia SAT forms that had previously been administered in the US," Schaeffer said.

"Though the test-makers have delayed reporting test scores and even withheld some due to media coverage of this scandal, they have not changed the underlying policies which make it possible."

The National Association for College Admission Counseling, a US group representing college counsellors and university admissions officials, also has been monitoring the College Board's response to cheating scandals.

The cancellation of a test increasingly creates "ripple effects across the globe", said Anne Richardson, a US counsellor and chair of the association's international advisory committee. "Communication and engagement of all constituencies is a key part of our conversations."

Pressure to excel

The phenomenon of cheating on high-stakes college entrance exams is hardly new territory, especially in China, where pressure on students to excel in their academic tests is widely acknowledged. Last year, one Chinese city deployed a drone to detect cheats on the gaokao, a gruelling standardised test that determines who will be able to enrol in one of China's universities and who will not.

"The importance of the gaokao is so firmly implanted in the national psyche that, for students applying abroad, the SAT becomes the logical equivalent," said John Evans, a college counsellor in Prague who previously worked at an international school in China. "The scores you achieve on this test are considered to determine the level or prestige of the universities to which you can apply."

Yuan Wan, a PhD candidate at Xiamen University who is working on a dissertation about admissions in selective US universities, also notes that test-prep companies overemphasise the importance of standardised tests while some US colleges rely too much on the SAT in international admissions.

She argues that university recruiters should factor the Chinese curriculum, grading system and high school experience into applications just as they do in reviewing US student applications. Doing so could signal to Chinese students and families "that the high school academic record is much more important than test scores", she said.

With so much pressure to perform well on tests, Chinese students have less time to participate in enriching extracurricular activities, adds Weifeng Chen, an associate professor at Yunnan Normal University. Then, with encouragement from their teachers and advisers, they embellish their records to appear to be well-rounded students and excellent leaders.

"In this way, they get an impression that cheating is not a big deal in college admissions," he says. "Then they are more likely to cheat in big tests than other students."

So, while US colleges expect high scores from Asian applicants, he adds, Chinese "middle schools and their advisers should take some relative responsibility, too".