Image credit: Shutterstock

The SAT, the standardized test taken by high school seniors to burnish their college applications, was administered nearly 1.7 million times last year. The test’s popularity within college admissions is based, in part, on the perception of fairness: As any recent test-taker is well aware, it is extremely difficult to cheat the SAT. According to a deeply reported investigative series by Reuters, however, a large number of SAT test-takers in Asia have benefitted from an illicit advantage when taking the exam:

The College Board, the not-for-profit organization that owns the SAT, has acknowledged widespread problems with test security in Asia in recent years. … But the breakdown in security is more pervasive than the College Board has publicly disclosed, Reuters has found. In addition to the security-related incidents the College Board has announced, the news agency identified eight occasions since late 2013 in which test material was circulating online before the SAT was administered overseas.

In a nutshell: To save money, the SAT’s parent company, the College Board, has repeatedly “recycled” the questions and answers of tests given in the United States when creating equivalent tests for overseas markets. In turn, overseas test-preparation academies, also known as cram schools, are able to gather enough information about the U.S. tests to produce a usable answer key for their own students:

The information comes from many sources. Test-prep centers have associates take the exam and memorize what they’ve seen. Some people even photograph the test booklet. The cram schools also analyze test information that American teenagers share on Internet forums. At times, cram schools have obtained actual SAT tests.

The College Board’s reaction to this development has been befuddling. In 2013, Reuters reported, the company knowingly administered an SAT test in China with materials that had already leaked onto Chinese message boards, where its questions were extensively discussed and answered. Stronger security measures, meanwhile, seem to have little effect. Earlier this month, the contents of an SAT exam given in the United States appeared on the Internet a few days later.

Leaked exam materials wouldn’t be that much of an issue if the College Board created tests that were unique to each market or country. It is reluctant to do so, according to Reuters, because “the cost of using an exam only once would be passed onto test-takers, who could end up paying more than double the current fee of up to $54.50.”

By the way, if you’re in the United States, there is (or was) at least one way to effectively cheat the SAT’s score history system, which records the number of times any student has taken the test. (Since some schools request all of your SAT scores, it’s usually better to have done very well as on as few attempts as possible.) An angel investor named Kai Peter Chang explained how he circumvented this system in a Quora post from 2012:

I understood at age 15 that a single, solitary high SAT score was far more impressive than multiple attempts to arrive at it. At the time (this may have changed), the ETS tracked your SAT-taking history through your Social Security Number. With this in mind, every time I took the SATs between Sophomore and Junior year, I deliberately wrote my SSN off by one digit.

When I finally got the score I wanted (1510/1600 in my case), I called up ETS and raised hell, telling them they screwed up my SSN and demanding that they correct it to my true SSN. “Oh, we are so sorry Mr. Chang. We will fix that for you immediately. Please accept our apologies ...” Consequently, only one high score was attached to my true SSN, and it became the basis for my applications.

We cannot vouch for whether this method still works. Given the lax security measures documented above, however, we wouldn’t be surprised if it did.

Read the rest of Reuters’ investigation here and here.