ACT Shakes Up Security Unit, Plans Audit After Cheating Reports

Tables set up in a hall at Asia-World Expo in Hong Kong, in preparation for an SAT examination in 2015. (Reuters/Bobby Yip)
Tables set up in a hall at Asia-World Expo in Hong Kong, in preparation for an SAT examination in 2015. (Reuters/Bobby Yip)

ACT Inc, maker of America’s most popular university entrance exam, is laying off its head of test security and plans to audit nearly 200 education centers after Reuters detailed widespread cheating in an ACT-owned college-prep program for international students.

Rachel Schoenig, who oversees a 14-person team that handles security for thousands of ACT exam centers in 177 countries, will leave the not-for-profit organization next month, according to people familiar with the matter. It is not clear whether she will be replaced.

In June, a leaked test forced ACT Inc, based in Iowa City, Iowa, to cancel sittings for its college-entrance exam in Hong Kong and South Korea. Reuters reported last month that Schoenig’s unit had repeatedly recommended tightening security overseas before the breach and cancellations, but that ACT executives had rejected the recommendations.

Schoenig is among several top security officials to leave ACT Inc recently. A senior investigator in her unit, Cody Shultz, recently quit, according to people familiar with the matter. And ACT’s head of information security, Shari Lewison, left the organization to take a job this month at University of Iowa Health Care, according to her LinkedIn page.

Schoenig declined to comment. Shultz and Lewison did not respond to requests for comment.

ACT spokesman Ed Colby declined to talk about the departures, saying he could not discuss personnel matters. “Nothing has changed regarding ACT’s commitment to test security and to providing a fair and level playing field for all examinees, nor to our ongoing efforts to improve our testing and security procedures,” he said.

Marten Roorda, ACT’s chief executive, declined to be interviewed for this story.

ACT’s chief rival, the New York-based College Board, which administers the SAT, continues to battle its own security problems. Reuters reported last week that a major breach exposed hundreds of unpublished questions for upcoming SAT exams. A College Board spokeswoman said the organization was investigating what she termed “a serious criminal matter.”

Reuters also reported in March that test-prep operations in East Asia were exploiting security flaws in the SAT, which is often reused overseas after first being given in the United States. Those cram schools harvest items from earlier exams, enabling students to practice on questions that are recycled for international versions of the test.

The SAT and ACT are used by thousands of U.S. colleges to help determine the fates of millions of student applicants.

The news agency last month also detailed cheating in the ACT-owned Global Assessment Certificate program. The program has about 5,000 students and operates at 197 centers, mostly in Asia. Seven students who attended three different GAC centers in China described how school officials and proctors ignored and were sometimes complicit in cheating on the ACT. Eight teachers or administrators who have worked at seven different Chinese GAC centers also described cheating in program courses.

Andrew Todd, who heads the ACT’s wholly owned subsidiary that oversees the GAC program, said Tuesday that he was “a bit shocked” by the cheating Reuters found.

“What we’ll have to do now is actually start an audit of all of the centers just to see how bad it is or how much evidence we can turn up,” said Todd, group general manager of ACT Education Solutions Ltd, the Hong Kong-headquartered subsidiary. “If the problem is as big as seems to be indicated, then our systems should be flagging it sooner.”

Reuters also identified six GAC centers – five in China and one in South Korea – that had administered the ACT while also offering commercial test-prep classes aimed at helping students score well on the exam. ACT Inc policy prohibits test-prep businesses from administering the exam because doing so would give them an unparalleled ability to help their clients by leaking them the test, according to ACT Inc officials.

Todd said he couldn’t recall such a policy. “If it is a policy, I should have known about it,” he said.

The vast majority of students in the GAC program take the ACT. The program itself is recognized by admissions offices at more than 60 colleges in the United States – including state universities in New York, Michigan, Iowa and Missouri. Some U.S. colleges award credit for successfully completing the GAC program.

Todd said ACT Education Solutions had contacted all of the colleges affiliated with the GAC program and assured them “we are dealing with the situation.”

Officials at several universities contacted by Reuters – including the University of Cincinnati and the University of Northern Iowa – said they were troubled by reports of cheating at GAC centers.

“The allegations made by Reuters in the article are obviously very concerning,” Katharine Johnson Suski, director of admissions at Iowa State University, wrote in an email. Iowa State has enrolled 132 GAC students since 2009.

Suski said she plans to review the success rates of the university’s GAC students. “We will also discuss the steps we will take moving forward and whether we are comfortable continuing our relationship with GAC and, if so, in what ways,” she wrote.