Students across Asia were blocked from attending the SAT on June 4, according to ThePaper.cn. Although the majority of affected students were scheduled to attend the Japanese and South Korean testing centers, numerous Chinese students also had their registration canceled.
Testing experts said the students may have been professional test takers hired by cram school to steal content from the exams.
It’s not the first time Chinese students were denied access to the SAT. In January, ETS instructed its SAT testing centers in Macau to cancel the January 23 test on account of stolen materials.
Ji, an 11th grade student, lost her chance to take the test on account of the cancelation. She said the decision severely limited her ability to apply for college.
“The next SAT exam will be held in October,” Ji said. Her previous exam score was too low to qualify for her target schools, and the October exam was her last chance to boost her scores before applying to American universities.
Cram School Theft
Wang Yan, SAT program director from New Channel, said repeat test takers with a “dishonest exam record” may be rejected from the SAT.
In April, Educational Testing Service (ETS) sent a notice to upcoming SAT test takers requiring that they sign a confidentiality agreement before the exam. The students who were rejected on June 4 may have refused to sign, or may not have received the notice.
“Around 5 to 10 percent of the test takers were affected this time,” said Yu Shunji, SAT program director at New Oriental in Shanghai.
Three of the seven new SAT exams developed for 2016 were to be issued during the test. The volume made this test session a top target for cram schools eager to steal materials.
Ma, director of an SAT cram school in Wuhan, said schools in Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou are the top sources of leaked questions. The three cities have the most developed test-prep industry, he said. A complete SAT sells for 25,000 to 28,000 yuan online.
But instead of sending teachers to memorize and steal questions from the test, some schools have found a more efficient way to steal questions: bribing delivery workers.
“The SAT is paper-based, and that means the weakest link in protecting the confidentiality of the test is the delivery man handling the package,” Ma said.
“SAT test material is repeated, and content used in the North American tests has a very high chance of being reused in Asia. Theoretically, with enough past test content it becomes easy to predict future test content,” Li Nannan, an SAT teacher at New Oriental, told eol.cn.
The leak of SAT test content is not uncommon throughout Asia.
South Korea’s cram schools are notorious for exposing real test material. In 2013, some 12 Korean cram schools were reported to have stolen SAT test content. The schools hired test takers to photograph test papers with a micro camera. In response, ETS slashed the number of testing sessions offered in Korea from six per year to four.
In March, the SAT went through a fierce reform that adjusted the exam’s length, question count, content and scoring. The new test also added questions related to the humanities, such as about the US Constitution – a very unfamiliar topic for Chinese students.
“Cheating is a big strike against exam development. Each exam is the product of a long research process. Cheating forces us to abandon any leaked test papers,” Walt MacDonald, CEO of ETS, told Beijing Youth Daily during his visiting to China on January 28.
On MacDonald’s agenda was the question of how to guarantee exam integrity. He said ETS planned to sign agreements about exam honesty with Chinese education officials in January. The agreements would strengthen exam safety and offer more Chinese testing centers.
“What we need to do is to stay alert,” said MacDonald. “We will … make sure all tests are reliable and fair.”
ETS is aware of the leak risks in the Chinese test-prep industry. Test takers who are above the average age are asked to take questionnaires that evaluate their real intent in taking the SAT.
“SAT’s question bank is quite old – the leaked test content had already been repeated several times in the real exam. To protect exam fairness, especially candidates who make a great effort, it makes sense why the new SAT was released in March,” said Zhang Deng, director of EF Test-Prep Center.
“Even though the new SAT helps protect the exam’s fairness, it also poses trouble for honest students whose exam registration was cancelled this time,” said Wang Yan, SAT program director at New Channel.
Liuxueshuo, an Internet commentator on overseas study, questioned how long could the new SAT can keep a lid on its questions.
“It will end up the same. Once the North American regions’ tests are finished, the Chinese students will quickly learn about the test content by viewing the American students’ online discussion,” he wrote. “ETS has a much more powerful enemy today: the Internet.”
According to the 2015 Abroad Study Development Report released by eol.cn and gol.edu.cn, China is the world’s largest source country for international students. There are more Chinese students in US than students from any other foreign country.
Given the high profits generated by the cram school industry, it’s hard to completely prevent leaks merely by cancelling suspected test takers’ exam admission.
“Instead of complaining the possible risks of revealing content, ETS should put more effort into developing new tests and making sure test material in Asia is not recycled,” Liuxueshuo wrote on its official Sohu account.
Similar methods have been endorsed by other critics who hope the new SAT can play a role in ensuring exam fairness.
“The test time should vary from region to region in Asia to reduce the risk of a leak,” Eol.cn wrote. “For instance, if the SAT in Japan is at 8:30 am, then in China it should be 7:30 am. Procedures such as filling out the information form could be pushed to the end.”