SAT & ACT test center security changes could create problems (updated)
In response to publicity from last Fall’s SAT cheating scandal in Long Island, the makers of the SAT (ETS) and ACT (ACT Inc.) announced new measures that they believe will help prevent students from hiring impersonators to take the tests for them.
The SAT security changes go into effect in the Fall of 2012. Frankly, it’s not at all clear the test makers have fully considered the implications of these changes.
Privacy Concerns About Photo Database
The issue that will probably get the most attention involves the new photo requirement.
“Students will be required to submit a current, recognizable photo during registration that will be included on a new photo admission ticket.
“Test center supervisors also will have access to a printable on-line register of the photos uploaded during registration for each student registered to test at that test center.”
In the age where teen privacy (online and offline) is already such a big concern for parents and students, allowing a random stranger at an SAT test center to print out a student’s photo and registration details (including full name, gender, date of birth, test taken, and high school) is certain to generate controversy.
But that is only the tip of the SAT privacy iceberg. ETS also has plans to compile a photo database of nearly every college applicant in the country, without any guarantees as to the database’s use or security.
“A registration data repository will be created containing the information and photo provided by the test-taker at the time of registration and used to produce the photo admission ticket required for test center admittance. High schools, colleges and universities, and other institutions that receive SAT scores will have access to the repository, as will the ETS Office of Testing Integrity. The registration data repository will not include test scores.”
‘High schools, colleges and universities, and other institutions that receive SAT scores’ is so broad as to basically grant access to employees of any and all educational (and even non-educational) institutions the SAT chooses, while in turn providing the individual test taker with zero control over who can access his or her photo and personal information or how this information is eventually used.
ETS will basically create its own Facebook-like page on every test taker that all its friends can see and over which the individual test taker has no control.
All of this begs the question, of course, as to whether any of this will actually prevent test taking impersonations. After all, what is to stop an impersonator simply submitting his or her own picture in place of the actual test taker? ETS would argue that allowing so many others (colleges admissions officers, high school counselors, test center employees, etc.) to cross check the test taker with the picture on the registration will act a deterrent to would be impersonators and their potential clients.
The effectiveness of the deterrent remains to be seen, but even so, where should we draw the line between the security of the SAT and the security of a teenager’s likeness and personal information? ETS has apparently decided there is no line, and that its own concerns about a relatively tiny number of cheaters (ETS says there were 150 score cancellations due to impersonations last year) wholly trumps the legitimate privacy and safety concerns of millions of honest test takers.
Other Hidden Problems
While privacy concerns will certainly feature prominently in any push back the test makers receive about their new policy, as an SAT tutor I also see other changes that won’t get a lot of attention but will almost certainly impact many would be test takers.
Eliminating Standby Registration and Test Changes Will Hurt Seniors
One seemingly innocuous change is the elimination of standby registration.
“Students will be required to preregister for the SAT and SAT Subject Tests. Standby (walk-in) testing will no longer be permitted.”
The elimination of standby registration will be especially problematic for Seniors deciding when and whether to take their last tries at the SAT in October, November and/or December. These Fall test dates are typically scheduled for the first Saturday of each month. The scores are then released on the third Thursday after the test date, which only leaves a little over a week between the time a student receives his or her scores and the next SAT test date.
The problem here is that the date when the scores are released is well past the registration deadline for the next SAT, which means a student has no way of knowing what the scores from the previous test are before making a call on whether to try again on the next test date.
Previously, the way around this dilemma had been to wait for the scores to come out and, if the student wanted to try again, he or she could go standby at the next test date. This will no longer be possible under the new rules. (The problem also applies to the May/June test schedule.)
What also won’t be possible is changing the type of test students can take.
“Students who want to change the type of test they intend to take (i.e., SAT rather than SAT Subject Tests or vice versa) must do so in advance. Test-type changes will no longer be permitted on test day.”
Again, the problem with the tight Fall SAT test schedule is that by the time the first test’s scores come back, the deadline for changing the type of test has also passed, so November and December test takers who are wondering whether to take the SAT or switch to Subject Tests will not be able to rely on their test scores from the previous sitting to make an informed decision.
Basically under the new rules, if a student is unsure about how many times and/or which SAT tests to take in the Fall, the student will now simply have to double register for successive Fall tests and make a best guess about which tests to sign up for.
One important note: if the student, after getting the scores back from the first test, decides not take the second test, the student will most likely forfeit the registration fee for that second test.
Can Non-High School Students Still Even Register?
Another seemingly minor, but potentially problematic change in the test center security rules is the requirement that test applicants must now register with the names of their high schools.
“Students will be required to provide the name of their attending high school during registration. Once SAT registration opens for the 2012-13 school year, registrations submitted without attending high school will not be processed.”
Taken at face value, this rule would appear to eliminate literally hundreds of thousands of potential SAT test takers who do not attend formal high school. So-called ‘non traditional test takers’ (PDF) include: 7th and 8th grade students who apply to ‘talent identification’ programs (like Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth), non-adults no longer in high school, and adult test takers. Others affected by the new rule would also appear to include home school students, community college students, and some International students.
I would assume some accommodation in the security rules will be made for these non-high school test takers, but as written, the rules would appear to preclude anybody not in high school from even registering for the SAT.
Citing concerns over potential bias in the college admissions process, ACT has announced a change in its policy and will now not provide access to student photos to colleges and universities. The College Board however said in a statement that it will not change its own policy.
The College Board chose not to attach test-taker photos to the score reports sent to high schools and colleges, as such a process could be exploited no matter who the recipient. Instead, we are creating a separate, secure, password-protected database that tracks both the user and the date and time the database was accessed as an additional layer of security that will all but eradicate any attempts at test-taker impersonation. We expect the mere existence of this “name and photo” database will stand as a strong deterrent to any test-taker who might still consider impersonation while the access-controlled functionality of the database will prevent misuse by score recipients.
Note the emphasis on “secure, password protected database” and the new mention of a time stamp as an “additional layer of security”. One would have assumed both the password requirement and the time stamp (both actually part of the same level of security) would have been a given from the outset, but the fact that ETS and the College Board now feel it necessary to mention these at least shows that the test makers are finally acknowledging that its millions of test takers do indeed have some legitimate privacy concerns. Not that the College Board has actually changed its policy of course, but perhaps its a start.
Even so, the College Board still needs to be a lot more specific about its database clients before students and parents can feel even remotely confident that their photos and personal information will not be abused.