'Sneak Attack': Cheating on the SAT is Easy

'Sneak Attack': Cheating on the SAT is Easy

I remember the day and morning before my standardized test. I was almost in tears because of the Math section I feared so much. But perhaps others also taking the test had less to be worried about: such is the persuasive case presented in the new book “Sneak Attack” by Peter Wayner.

Technology is always a cat-and-mouse game between those with malice in mind, who use technological knowledge to aide their wrongdoing, and those who wish to maintain equity and use these advancements for good. Unbeknownst to many of us college students, College Board test takers have used technology to jump leagues ahead on our most important college preparation test by cheating.

“Sneak Attack” enters the world of these high school geeks. Taking a conversation with a Brooklyn Science grad, as well as many other technical sources, Wayner exposes the simple fact that “anyone could cheat on the SAT” by highlighting tactics that any savvy high schooler may employ:

1. Reprogram certain calculators to include mathematical functions way beyond the four-function rules, without being caught

2. Program in SAT vocabulary lists and take them into the test

3. Purchase SAT Software packs from private companies that allow test-takers to work faster through the test

4. Watch YouTube videos from other tech-experts that highlight new ways students can use their calculators to assist them in the test

Worse? It seems that the College Board is at the heart of the trouble. They appear to be unaware that such cheating is occurring. Inattentive, poorly paid proctors, the nature of the SAT math, and deeply unresponsive calculator and cheating policies are highlighted as evidence of their ignorance. The College Board’s performance on cheating is demonstrated to be falling way behind the ACT, GMAT and other standardized testing practices.

It cannot be pure stupidity. The College Board in the year 2010-2011 earned roughly $720 million income. One would think that such a pervasive organization would have ample resources to stop the gaming of their own test, maybe not through technical knowledge, but at least through rules that blocks such systematic methods of cheating. Unwilling blindness must certainly be the cause: it is not just the economic inertia of a hugely wealthy organization, but a closed governance has led it to become inactive and out-of-touch with the realities of the testing room.

Is anyone really able to cheat on the test? Of course not. Such cheating is academically and socio-economically specific. The terrifying thing about this self-selecting group of tech nerds is their dedication to fooling the test, but not exactly their numbers. Even most of the public schools noted in the book, such as Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech, are extremely competitive and technogically-focused institutions. Ironically, such cheating will be most commonly done by those who need to worry the least about the exam: the richer, smarter and technically connected individuals.

In response to these cheating tactics, the College Board is eliminating the use of the calculator from one third of the test. Wayner suggests the future industry standard should be to have test-provided calculators handed out at the start of the exam, which prevent the use of external computation. David Mainiero, the Director of College Counseling at InGenius Prep, thinks that this proposal “would certainly help to level the playing field” for test-takers, and especially benefit those who could not or would not have otherwise brought a calculator on their test day.”

Truth be told, such cheating may be relatively insignificant as a proportion of the test-taking population and it will doubtlessly rarely change an SAT performance. Instead, Sneak Attack alerts us to a cheating culture which could only get worse. Mainiero explained that this cheating culture is a particularly pervasive problem when it comes to international applications. He said that admissions officers could routinely throw out thousands of applications from abroad because they were clearly inauthentic in some way. Unlike those application defects though, the problem with the SAT cheating that Wayner is describing is that it is virtually undetectable once it’s been perpetrated.

Given the recent and likely continued drop in college admissions rates, especially to highly selective colleges, and given the already huge academic and socio-economic disadvantages some applicants face, such SAT cheating is another piece of admissions ‘in-knowledge’ that is reserved for the lucky few. Sneak Attack presents us with both an interesting problem with the SAT as well as some thoughtful solutions.

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