05/14/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Cheating SAT-style (Part II)

The month of March means different things to different people. For college basketball fans, March may mean March Madness; for those seeking more daylight, March can mean "springing forward" as we change our clocks for daylight savings time (Sunday at 2am, by the way); for others March means bursting flower bulbs (daffodils and hyacinths are my favorites), and for still others March gives hope that shorts and t-shirts will soon be coming out from their hibernation. But for college-hopefuls, March means the SAT, more formally known as the Standardized Aptitude Test.

March 13th is the big day this year, the 14th for those who celebrate the Sabbath.
While the students will spend the better part of four hours worrying over Math and English questions, the biggest concern for those in the security office of the Educational Testing Service (ETS), which administers the test, is cheating. The security surrounding the SAT is so high that it conjures up images of the Declaration of Independence, pre-National Treasure.

Considering the numbers, security should be a big concern. On an average SAT-administering day, there are 6-thousand centers conducting tests.

The SAT, first administered in 1926, has been governed by ETS since its inception in 1947.

With 24-million tests administered per year at 25-thousand test centers in 192 countries, ETS has administered nearly 1.5-billion tests in its history. Not just the SAT but other high profile exams such as the Advanced Placement exam (AP) and the Graduate Record Exam. The LSAT (law school) and the MCAT (medical school) are not administered by ETS.

ETS, which employs 35 people in its Office of Testing Integrity, has cheating prevention down to a science. That said, its job is not to prove cheating but rather to make sure that an individual's score is up to the standards of the Educational Testing Service. "If our standards are not met, we can question the score," says Ray Nicosia, Executive Director for the Office of Testing Integrity at ETS. "It's not our job to prove cheating. We don't get into banning 16 year olds from taking the SAT for years for copying on a test. We are just concerned with that one score, that's our process. Keeps us out of court. We're not saying that the individual test taker has cheated, we are saying we have reason to question a score."

If, however, an adult is involved with SAT cheating, perhaps with impersonation of a test-taker or by providing answer keys to stolen tests, then ETS does pursue criminal action.

"The overall security of the test from its inception is very detailed. We don't just worry about the classroom," says Nicosia. "My responsibility begins in the building itself, where people are writing the test questions. We secure our buildings, we vet out the hundreds of test writers before we hire them to write questions for the SAT, we oversee background tests, we have secure vendors to print the SAT, we have security that comes with the transporting of the books from the vendor to ETS, we ship our books to the testing centers in a secure manner, a traceable manner. At the test center there is a test center supervisor, someone used to handling confidential material. Their job is to secure the books upon delivery, to hire staff, make sure the staff is trained and knows what to do on Saturday morning."

Despite all that, Nicosia says, there is cheating. And, it's the wandering eye -- not technology (cell phones, video cameras, etc.) -- that continues to be ETS's biggest cheating challenge.
And so, on Saturday mornings rooms are set up so all the desks are facing in one direction, spaced at a particular distance to hinder the wandering eye; ID's are checked, friends and acquaintances separated and proctors directed to walk the aisles. A proctor who sees a student with a cell-phone can dismiss that student immediately at the site, notes Nicosia. "We have given them that authority." When the test is over, students are not dismissed until all the books are accounted for.

"We spend a lot of time and money on trying to prevent anyone from getting an unfair advantage," says Nicosia. "Having said that, we know that students are still going to copy, or have an impersonator, we know it's going to happen."

And so there are the "after-the-fact checks" which are based on a variety of triggers or red flags. The most typical trigger is a large score difference between a first SAT score and a second score. Since the ETS security office personnel are trained in handwriting analysis, a big score-jump means the test-taker's handwriting is analyzed. The analysis will confirm whether the test-taker is an imposter, either someone hired to take the test, or a sibling or a friend. If handwriting is cleared, the office does a "copy-check," investigating whether the questionable student and those sitting nearby answered the same questions incorrectly.

"If the only thing we have is the score jump but we don't have a missing book, or we don't have a handwriting difference, or the answers are not matching up with anyone else's, we will clear the case and release the scores. But, if it doesn't meet our standards we will go forward and question the score."

In such a situation, ETS will contact the student and offer him or her a series of options to resolve matter. "You are allowed to cancel, you can just walk away. We will even give your money back. We win in court because we have compelling evidence and we give ample options to resolve the matter," says Nicosia. And because the test-takers sign a contract saying they understand the rules and conditions of taking the SAT.

Often, an investigation into a score comes from outside ETS. A college may request an analysis if a student with a C-average and no APs (Advanced Placements classes) gets a very high score on the SATs. "That's a red flag for a school but not for ETS, which doesn't see school transcripts," explains Nicosia.

ETS may also investigate student scores if there is a large score jump in one city or even in one school.

There's also a hotline, launched by Nicosia a dozen years ago. Anyone with information about a cheating student can call, or fax, or e-mail ETS with a tip. ETS will then look into the situation, though no scores will be challenged without a full investigation. "Students will brag. Sometimes kids will say, 'yeah, I got a fake ID and my brother is going to take the test for me.' They brag about it before the test and so we'll take extra steps on the day of the test to catch the cheater."

The end result. There's very little cheating on the SAT. According to Nicosia who has been overseeing SAT security for 20 years, 99-percent of the students who take the test follow the rules. In other words, only one-percent of SAT test-takers cheat. That number is vastly different than research on high school and college cheating which shows that 80 to 90-percent of students cheat on tests, papers and projects given by their schools. Given the discrepancy, we're left with this most obvious of questions: why is there such a discrepancy? Is it because Nicosia and his crew have made it so difficult to cheat? Or, could it be because the rules and consequences laid forth by ETS are so well-defined that students understand risk isn't worth the result?

To reach the ETS hotline call:1-800-353-8570 (U.S., U.S. Territories, Canada), 1-609-406-5430 (all other locations); Fax: 1-609-406-9709; or E-mail: