Dear Renee Dudley, Steve Stecklow, Alexandra Harney and Irene Jay Liu,
As someone who has studied and written extensively about the SAT corruption and the fraud delivery system known as Asian test prep , I congratulate you on the thorough job exposing the College Board’s open courting of corruption for profit in the overseas SAT market.
I’m not a reporter, just a teacher who does pretty good research, but for what it’s worth I think you did an outstanding job on many aspects of the story. I offer these suggestions (and one correction) with some disagreement, but little criticism (and lord knows, I can criticize).
The College Board Was Aware Long Before 2013
Your article strongly suggests time and again that the College Board learned that Asian test prep companies had obtained the tests by May 2013. In fact, the College Board knew that the test had been corrupted by January 2007, when it cancelled the scores of all 900 South Korean testers. It was common knowledge at the time that the College Board recycled old tests. The AP story doesn’t mention hagwons, and shows a touching faith in the CB’s assurance that kids couldn’t possibly benefit from seeing the test again. However, the College Confidential forums were very clear that the source of the test was a hagwon, not some “accidental exposure”. I worked for Kaplan and a major US hagwon at the time (only taught SAT at Kaplan) and my hagwon boss told me all about the methods Korean test prep companies used to get the “held back” tests.
So the College Board has known for at least nine years and probably longer that Asian international testers were cheating.
More Context on Cheaters
Your reporting begins with Xingyuan Ding, a Chinese national now attending ULA, who scored an 800 on the SAT Critical Reading section. Ding claims that “about half” of the answers on the reading section were in his “jijing”, or answer key.
That’s highly unlikely. While I understand the need for objectivity, some context would be useful. An 800 on the reading section is a 99th percentile score, meaning 99% of the testers receive a lower score. Even among Asians, it’s a 98th percentile score. So how likely is it that a Chinese national got that score?
Your reporting also mentions Linfeng Liu, another Chinese student who tested in Hong Kong, who says that she was “helped” by recognizing five—just five!—vocabulary questions, which enabled her, she said, to focus more on reading comprehension. Her overall score isn’t mentioned, but again, how likely is it that she cheated “just a little bit”?
Information that would have helped give context. Were these interviews conducted in Chinese or in English? How fluent was Ding, the 800 SAT critical reading guy, in English? How were these students doing in their classes?
Another related issue: In your FAQ, you mention repeatedly that just seeing the questions, not the answers, would still constitute a major advantage. That’s true. However, the story gives the impression that seeing the questions provides the primary, even sole, advantage to the students. This is almost certainly not true, and while that statement may be too strong, I think you tilt too far the other way. These are Chinese and Korean nationals with very weak English. A preview of the reading passages isn’t going to give them a big advantage. The answers do. Whether they’ve memorized long sequences or just have them handily tucked into a cell phone, the Chinese kids you interviewed almost certainly had the answers.
Cheating: It’s Not Just In China Anymore
Your reporting revealed that Asian test prep companies sent employees over here:
Sanli, the Chinese test-prep chain, says it sent 11 teachers to the United States to collect information on the redesigned exam. They debriefed 40 Sanli students studying at U.S. high schools who took the new SAT as they exited test centers, according to Wu, the general manager. Sanli presented its findings at a seminar at a Shanghai hotel.
Heavens, that’s interesting. I did not know this. So are these Sanli students “Asian Americans”–born here, or immigrant children of long-time residents–or are they “Asian nationals” over here on F1 visas? As you probably know, Chinese students are flooding US public high schools whenever they can and US Christian private high schools when they can’t (due to the 1-year restriction), with our Beijing embassy eagerly courting more. Between 2009 and 2014, the number of F1 high school visas grew from 1,700 to 80,000, the vast majority of them Chinese or South Korean.
So when you report that Asian test prep companies are using “their” students to gain SAT knowledge to enable cheating, are they F-1 students on visas? Or are they Asian Americans who enroll with these test prep companies?
Of course, the College Board is not reusing national tests–at least, not often—which raises another question: what advantages do the Asian test prep companies offer Asians living in the US?
Your story hints at possibilities here:
Eight of the 10 existing Mathematics Level II subject tests were compromised – three in their entirety and five in part, including two exams that had never been given anywhere, the PowerPoint shows. Ten of the 13 Biology exams were also compromised in whole or in part, including one totally new test.
I’ve written on this before as well; Asian test prep companies have certainly used corrupt school administrators to gain early access to tests.
So the story probably goes beyond the international cheating–as if that’s not enough. It’s pretty clear that Asian test prep companies are getting early versions of tests. Given the College Board’s lax procedures, the leak may be from within the company.
What About the ACT?
You mention that the SAT dominates in the international market; my own research confirms that the ACT’s international presence is minimal. My understanding is that the SAT only recycles tests for the international sitting.
So what does the ACT do? Does the ACT recycle tests? What is the relative size of the two markets? If the SAT is the only test with a significant international presence, could it possibly be due to the fact that international testers have access to early copies? The overwhelming bulk of international testers are Asian or Middle Eastern, all countries with culture of cheating that Americans can barely comprehend.
Or perhaps there’s another explanation. But getting the ACT’s procedure would be a useful comparison point. Your story acknowledges the fact that ACT is the national leader, but apparently SAT’s touchstone status causes reporters to forget that and ignore the market king’s methods. (OK, that was a tad snarky.)
David Coleman Stonewalls
You know how reporters say [so and so] refused repeated requests to comment? You apparently only asked David Coleman to comment once.
David Coleman is a celebrity in the world of education reform. He is celebrated, rightly or wrongly, for Common Core standards. He took over the helm at the College Board in 2012–that fact alone should be mentioned, should it not? Presumably he was present, along with other “senior College Board staff” at the meeting with the Power Point slides in June 2013.
It’s not really your fault. But it’s over a day since your story came out, and not a peep from the College Board, much less Coleman. Couldn’t you have at least said “repeated requests”? Or did you only ask once?
But like all reported stories I’ve seen on Asian cheating of the SAT, there’s no connection to the larger interests involved.
As your story mentions, many public and private universities are recruiting foreign students who are mostly from China and South Korea, even though the students are cheating on applications and tests, lying about their grades and resumes. Keep in mind that universities get tax breaks and other federal funding and public universities were chartered to serve the educational needs of their states.
Meanwhile, the SAT is moving outside its old beat as a college admissions test into a high school graduation test. Several states have committed use the SAT as a graduation requirement. Several states have switched from the ACT, which focuses on American students, to the SAT, which manifestly does not.
This isn’t just an issue for worried parents of college applicants. The College Board encourages and benefits from international criminal racketeering organizations that engage in immigration and mail fraud while enabling colleges to pretend they are accepting qualified applicants when in fact the colleges know full well their applicants lied. It collects money from multiple state contracts for a test product they can’t be bothered to spend money protecting from those organized criminal enterprises. State and private universities knowingly consume a fraudulent information product in order to fatten their coffers, all the while benefiting from tax-exempt status at both the federal and state interest.
Should the College Board be allowed to sell state contracts given its knowing participation in organized crime? Should our tax dollars be spent on universities if they are no longer acting in the public interest? Reasonable people can undoubtedly disagree on these questions. But surely they should at least be raised.
I want to emphasize again how pleased I am at your story and that while I had the above quibbles, overall it really was an excellent, thoroughly reported piece. I hope Reuters pushes it harder; you guys should be on TV, talking about this. Feel free to use my “national interest” take when you’re on the air.
All the best,