Security

Massive Breach Exposes Hundreds of Questions for Future SAT Exams

Someone with access to materials for upcoming versions of the redesigned SAT exam has taken hundreds of questions and provided them to Reuters, the wire agency reported this week.

The confidential test items included 21 reading passages — each with about a dozen questions — and about 160 math problems.

Reuters does not know how widely the items have circulated. The news agency said it has no evidence that the materials have fallen into the hands of what the College Board, which administers the SAT college entrance exam, calls “bad actors,” or groups that “will lie, cheat and steal for personal gain,” the board said.

But independent testing specialists briefed on the issue said the breach represents one of the most serious security lapses to come to light in the history of college admissions testing, Reuters reported.

To ensure the materials were real, Reuters provided copies to the New York, NY-based College Board. In a response letter to the news agency, an attorney for the College Board said publishing any of the items would have a dire impact, “destroying their value, rendering them unusable, and inflicting other injuries on the College Board and test takers.”

College Board spokeswoman Sandra Riley said in a statement that the organization was moving to contain damage from the leak. The College Board is “taking the test forms with stolen content off of the SAT administration schedule while we continue to monitor and analyze the situation,” she said.

Riley declined to say whether those steps would involve canceling or delaying upcoming tests. The next Scholastic Aptitude Test in the United States is Oct. 1.

The breach is “a serious criminal matter,” Riley wrote in her statement. “A thorough investigation is ongoing, therefore our comments must be limited.”

Colleges and universities throughout the country use the SAT to evaluate millions of college applicants each year. Thus, a major security lapse could wreak havoc for admissions officers and students alike. 

Neal Kingston, head of the Achievement and Assessment Institute at the University of Kansas, called the SAT security breach “a problem of a massive level,” one that could “put into question the credibility of the exam.”

If unscrupulous test-preparation centers obtained the stolen items, the impact on the SAT would be “devastating,” said James Wollack, director of the University of Wisconsin Center for Placement Testing.

Since the beginning of the year, Reuters has been investigating the security of college entrance exams and the College Board, and has published a five-part series on its findings. In March, Reuters reported that the College Board has been unable to prevent foreign test-preparation operators from giving their clients an advance look at exam questions. 

Back in 2014, employees at the College Board raised concerns, arguing for limits on who could access items and answer keys for the revamped SAT, Reuters reported.

In this most recent breach, Reuters reported that the stolen materials include “a wealth of items for upcoming tests,” including reading passages drawn from novels, historical documents, scientific journals, essays and other texts, each accompanied by questions. Also among the materials were math problems involving geometry and quadratic equations.

About the Author

Richard Chang is associate editor of THE Journal. He can be reached at rchang@1105media.com.

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