Answers to an SAT subject exam were leaked from overseas, watchdog group says

Answers to a recent SAT college admissions exam were circulating on the internet for more than half a day before the test was administered, according to a watchdog group that received a copy.

The security breach, which was not widely reported, was announced by the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest. It happened a day before thousands of students worldwide were set to take the June 1 SAT Biology subject test.

Questions and answers to the exam were also posted on the website hours before the exam was set to begin in the U.S.

Bob Schaeffer, public education director of the watchdog group, said it received a call from East Asia that he believes came from South Korea. Schaeffer said the anonymous caller told him they had a photocopy of the exam, and sent it to him.

Students all over the world take SAT exams on the same days throughout the year, with the Eastern Hemisphere beginning the exam hours before the U.S.

The SATs are administered by the College Board, which also administers the PSAT and Advanced Placement exams. The College Board said it was aware of the report.

Security breaches have happened before – for example, in 2016, the College Board was criticized when companies in Asia distributed answers to previously administered exams that the College Board had recycled.

“For every test administration, we take all necessary actions to make sure that all test scores we report are accurate and valid, including canceling scores when there is evidence of invalidity,” College Board said in a written statement to The Sacramento Bee.

The College Board now ships material in advance in lock boxes with codes, and does not make the codes available in advance. But Schaeffer said critics have noted how easy it is to break into the lock boxes – and the incentive is great.

“If they have access to the tests, they can sell them for large amounts of money,” Schaeffer said. “They don’t reveal how people do this, but it’s pretty easy.”

This is the fourth time FairTest says it has received advance copies of SAT exams from sources in Asia.

FairTest says on its website that its mission is to “advance quality education and equal opportunity by promoting fair, open, valid and educationally beneficial evaluations of students.” It says it also “works to end the misuses and flaws of testing practices that impede those goals.”

After testing companies experienced a rise in largely international cheating incidents, the SAT’s competitor ACT banned pencil and paper exams last year. The ACT now administers only computerized exams overseas.

Other exams are moving in the digital-only direction, including the LSAT for law school admissions.

“Test makers are already doing a lot of piloting and gathering data to see how students are scoring (digitally),” said Sam Pritchard, Kaplan Test Prep’s director of college prep programs, which prepares millions of students each year for admissions tests worldwide. “I wouldn’t go into that digital direction without being able to demonstrate to colleges, parents and students that there is a parity with these formats.”

Pritchard said he was aware of the security breach.

“Students already come to the test with a level of anxiety especially in light of the ‘Varsity Blues’ scandal that was reported not long ago,” he said. “Hearing about this (breach) can increase anxiety and concerns.”

The Varsity Blues scandal was a massive college admissions scam led by Sacramento resident William Rick Singer. FBI and federal prosecutors say that Singer led a racketeering conspiracy in which he arranged for students to get into top U.S. schools and helped them – and their parents – cheat on the SAT exams.

More than 2.1 million students took the SAT in 2018, according to officials.

About 220,000 students took one of the 20 available subject exams that range from Modern Hebrew to Chemistry. SAT subject tests are less in demand as colleges focus on AP exams. More than 5.1 million AP exams were taken in 2018, and 260,000 students took the AP Biology exam.

It’s unclear how many students saw the answers before taking the test, and it’s also unclear how college admissions offices throughout the U.S. will handle the security breach.

“If there are students applying to the same colleges as those using leaked tests, that is concerning for sure,” said Pritchard.

More than 2,000 students from South Korea were accepted into the nine University of California campuses that enroll undergraduates in 2018, according to their website, making it third largest group of international students. Students from China and India made up the majority of the UC’s international fall enrollment each year at 24,000 and 3,000 students, respectively.

While like most colleges, the UC requires SAT or ACT exam scores for admissions, it does not require the subject testing.

UC Davis, for example, “will consider submitted SAT subject test scores only if they benefit the applicant,” according to university officials.

The private California Institute of Technology in Pasadena does require the SAT subject test in biology, chemistry or physics. Some elite private schools, including Cornell University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, require at least two subject tests.

The University of California Office of the President and Caltech did not return requests for comment.

Related stories from Merced Sun-Star

Sawsan Morrar covers school accountability and culture for The Sacramento Bee. She grew up in Sacramento and is an alumna of UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She previously freelanced for various publications including The Washington Post, Vice, KQED and Capital Public Radio.