The new SAT did not come into this world on the most auspicious note. Born not from a noble purpose but from a bending to market pressures, its path was fraught from the very beginning. Of course it didn’t help that its predecessor had long been mired in controversy — racism, elitism, and irrelevance were just a few of the aspersions cast its way. But the College Board — the creator of the test — got a major PR lift hiring David Coleman to turn the tide against this negative sentiment. Through glossy brochures, media blitzes and seminars, the College Board tried to assuage the public that it had learned from the folly of its ways. The new test would be about fairness: fairer questions, a fairer format (yes, I’m talking about the “guessing penalty”), and a fairer measure of college readiness. The public saw it otherwise: a glorified ACT, the very test that had usurped the SAT’s position as the top test in college admissions.
So all the energy spent on convincing the public the SAT had improved smacked of desperation — and hinted that the test might be the same wolf, albeit in slightly more tailored sheep’s clothing. But therein lies much of the problem; there is a strong argument that the test is in fact an improvement over the old exam, yet there is such entrenched mistrust of the College Board that, unless you were a SAT content expert, defending the notion of “improvement” becomes difficult. The problem then for the College Board might not be one of content, but of contempt.
The problem then for the College Board might not be one of content, but of contempt.
Still, I felt that the improvements to the SAT were enough to slowly erode that skepticism. If anything, the College Board should probably have stood back and trusted the test, instead of ingratiatingly reassuring us that it was indeed better. But perhaps I was somewhat naïve, or at least not completely aware of how out of step the College Board is with the way it continues to be perceived.
This week Reuters released an article about how Asian prep schools continue to cheat on the exam — a practice that goes back a decade and one that College Board has publicly acknowledged, claiming it is handling the situation. While the natural reflex might be to aim invective at such prep schools, it is difficult to feel that way after learning how College Board has actually been handling the cheating crisis: denial. Basically, it reused questions across different administrations of the old test, questions that the Asian cram schools had been able to reproduce by asking students as soon as they had walked out of the test about what they had seen. These questions readily proliferated online, forming a rough version of the test, known in China as jijing, stitched together by the memories of many test takers. Students in the Asian countries cited in the article are aware of the practice. Even many strong test takers feel that they are disadvantaging themselves if they do not look at jijing, or their country’s equivalent.
Even when the College Board had been notified of these egregious security breaches, its response was essentially: “We are 100% sure the test exams are valid; cheaters constitute far less than 1%.” It went ahead and reused questions that students in Asia had been studying for months.The idea that the College Board could possibly track the jijing, and thus the online behavior of millions of students, is of course as absurd as its “far less than 1%” claim.
Granted, the College Board has had to contend with wily and unscrupulous foes. Yet, its air of infallibility, even after college admissions boards have entreated it to stop reusing questions, underscores the fact that it does not hold itself accountable, and is anything but transparent. Ultimately, it is a large bureaucracy that elevates itself above students, making its recent PR push on fairness all the more disingenuous. The reality is many students, presumably not in Asia, were passed over for college admissions, giving up their spots to those who had cheated.
The reality is many students, presumably not in Asia, were passed over for college admissions, giving up their spots to those who had cheated.
In the end, there may be a relatively straightforward reason the College Board was forced to reuse questions: its current method of creating and refining questions through experimental sections allowed it to produce only a certain number of questions per year. In other words, the College Board would have to adapt by finding ways to create more high quality test items and, much to its chagrin, admit that it had been compromised. Even if this explanation is only partially true, being forthcoming on why it was forced to reuse questions would have made the College Board seem relatable. Human even. And that is exactly what the College Board needs to become before a test that is in many ways better than its predecessor becomes so maligned that no amount of PR facelifts can save it.
If you like what you’ve read, be sure to hit recommend below, to pass the story along to your followers! As always, consider following The Synapse for more authentic voices in education!