Security & Fraud

Inside The SAT Goldmine

Most people will never once think about their SAT score once they’ve submitted it to the college of their choice. But for a brief but highly meaningful amount of time, most budding American college students (and their parents) stress big time about taking the SAT tests. It’s a very, very big deal since it is more or less the standardized test that will determine where that kid will go to college. In 2016, between 1.3 million and 1.5 million pre-college students will take the big test.

College admissions officers themselves tend to downplay the importance of the scoreMarilyn McGrath, the head of undergraduate admissions at Harvard, famously noted that the No. 1 school in the nation doesn’t much care about the SAT.

“Generally speaking, the SAT is not very important,” McGrath said in 2013. “It helps us calibrate a student’s grades.”

And while that may be somewhat true, it is also true that 25 percent of Harvard students had a perfect score, 75 percent scored between 2,100-2,300 (1,470+ on the  1,600 point system) and only 25 percent had a score below 2,100. The average American student scores on average about 600 points lower than the bottom 25 percent of the students admitted to Harvard, so clearly the SAT does some very exact calibrating for Harvard.

Given the very big effect it can have on the rest of a student’s life and the fact that almost no one opts out of it (since almost all colleges require either the SAT or the ACT for admissions purposes), SAT preparation is also big business.  

How big?  

Well depends on what end you want to look at. The legal world of big spending to make sure students are ready to rock on test days? That is an industry worth billions. The not so legal world of stealing tests for profit? Unknown at this point, but black markets being what they are, also certainly in the billions.

And if recent Reuters reports are correct, also certainly heading for some impressive spikes.

Big Spending On The Right Side Of The Law

In 2009, parents around the world spent an estimated $2.5 billion helping their offspring prep for the college admissions tests – with classes, study materials and even private tutors. Many estimate that today, that number is now somewhere north of $3 billion.  

And anyone who ever told you that no one gets rich working in education, well, they weren’t exactly right.  

No one gets rich becoming a teacher, certainly, but becoming a standardized test tutor that helps teenagers from affluent families make sure their applications to Yale get decided correctly? That’s a horse of a different color.

And that color is green.

Daniel Riseman has degrees in English, mathematics and a masters in education. He is not teacher. Instead, he is a 40 year old who works full time as an education consultant in Westchester County, New York. He consults with his “clients” on how to correctly take the SAT. He currently tutors 30 students per week and can bag as much as $220,000 annually.

“Sometimes I work seven days a week and it just never stops, but it’s good money,” says Riseman noted. “One parent said, ‘If I don’t hire you, I’m doing my daughter a disservice.’”

The Princeton Review lists SAT Test Prep courses in the Boston area for between $780-$7,800, depending on the scope and depth of the courses. Further, there are a few free offerings listed, yet the $999 offerings are advertised as the “most popular.” And there are certainly parents of hyper-competitive students in the U.S. and abroad who are willing to shell out that kind of cash, too.

That outlook is not all that unique – particularly among the parents of hyper-competitive students in the U.S. and abroad looking for placements in Tier-1 U.S. Schools. But a new, and worrisome point of view developing is a willingness among parents to not help their children do well on the test by studying, but to give them a boost of another flavor.

Stealing The Test

The contents of the SAT, particularly the questions themselves and the answer keys, are quite valuable and sensitive. End-to-end it takes 18 to 30 months to create the test students take annually. And while the test is in its embryonic form, the test questions are stored in the “Item Bank.”

Trying to cheat the SAT is not a new idea. The reason most students are asked to show ID at the test today is due to a wave of smart kids who were taking the SAT under other kids’ names for pay in the ’90s.  

Most recent examples of the test being “compromised” (industry speak for when advance copies of the test or part of the test are leaked to the general public ahead of time) involved foreign students, particularly in Asia. Those compromises came in two basic flavors.

The less serious version involved Asian test-prep companies illegally obtaining old copies of the SAT and distributing them to their paying clients as study aids. That is frowned up and definitely against the rules, but not a case of any student having explicit prior knowledge of what would be on the test.  

That more serious issue came up last spring, when it became known that those test prep firms had also managed to get their hands on a copy of the new (and as yet untaken) version of the SAT. That breach seems to be a result of the realities of shipping a physical product from New Jersey to Southeast Asia. Because the test must physically go in the mail a few weeks in advance, there are many opportunities on the road for someone to surreptitiously swipe and copy one to sell.  

And while it may sound like we are being sarcastic about this annual re-enactment of “Ocean’s Eleven” to steal the SAT, to be clear, this is far from a joke to either the people who make the tests, or the people who steal them.

The College Board has cautioned that “cartel-like companies” in China and other countries “will stop at nothing to enrich themselves.”

And as serious as that sounds — Southeast Asian-organized crime dedicating itself to stealing your product at all costs is actually quite bad — that isn’t even the biggest security problem the SAT has right now.

The biggest problem is the one they still can’t quite explain.  

The Question Mark Hack

There is nothing quite like a big reveal gone bad.  

Just a few months after the College Board rolled out the latest SAT redesign, they got some very, very bad news.  

Someone had hacked the test and had all the questions and answers ready to go. An anonymous source provided Reuters with hundreds of confidential test items. The questions and answers include 21 reading passages – each with about a dozen questions – and about 160 math problems. The College Board confirmed that those questions were legit in a rather panicky response email that begged Reuters not to destroy the integrity of the test by publishing them and “destroying their value, rendering them unusable, and inflicting other injuries on the College Board and test takers.”

Independent testing specialists briefed on the matter said the breach represents one of the most serious security lapses that’s come to light in the history of college admissions testing.

It is not known how widely those questions have been leaked — or if the material has fallen into the hands of “bad actors.” No one knows if this is the work of hackers looking to cash in or white hat hackers looking to make a point.

It is a point the College Board has heard — less forcefully delivered, before.

And it was a problem they were warned about repeatedly. When starting their newest redesign in 2012, the College Board hired Gartner to identify the risks associated with it.

Gartner spit back a bunch of areas for concern, including a strong need to better protect the material being developed for the new SAT. Gartner noted that the College Board had not developed plans to secure the test from leaks, leading thousands of questions at risk.

And now it seems some of those thousands of items have gotten out into the wild.  

How bad it will be will depend on how widely distributed the stolen information is in this case. But the bigger issue on the table remains unsolved, according to the experts, which is if tests can’t be secured, the usefulness of the tests themselves becomes questionable.  

As it is, the SAT scheduled for Oct. 1 may or may not be happening; the College Board has yet to issue a decision.  

On the upside, some students have just gotten a lot more time to study.

And those tutors, more time to make more money. 

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