Will New Measures Halt Cheating on the SAT and ACT?

In the wake of a recent cheating scandal on Long Island, NY, new security measures were announced for the SAT and ACT exams. The principal change is that students will now be required to upload a photo of themselves when registering for these exams. The photos will appear on the students admission tickets, and also on test site rosters that will be available to proctors. Also, the photos will be attached to any score reports that are sent to high schools and colleges.

It seems to me that these measures, while not foolproof, do add an additional layer of anti-cheating protection. Consider the recent cheating scandal on Long Island. Students paid a college student to take the exams for them. The college student, Sam Eshagoff, had only to furnish cheap false IDs, and was granted entry into the testing center. Since the name on each ID matched that of the student who would receive the scores, Eshagoff was able to get away with his scam for quite some time.

If another student were to attempt a similar scam, he would now have to upload a photo of himself, or at least one that looked similar enough to fool a proctor. Of course, that wouldn’t mean he’d be any easier to detect than Eshagoff was. However, there would now be a long-lasting record of his chicanery. If at any time, a high school guidance counselor, or a college admissions officer were to notice that the photo was not that of the student, the deception would be exposed.

I think that this measure will act as a deterrent to most people who might consider cheating in this fashion. However, some students may take the risk, hoping that no one pays close attention to the photos. I suppose it’s also remotely possible that a look-alike could stand in for a student, or perhaps even an expert in disguise might give it a try.

Masked man

My major criticism of the new measures is that they only deter one method of cheating. Students can still share information in various ways. They could easily develop methods of signaling to each other. In this technological age, it’s also hard to imagine that some students haven’t tried using hand-held devices to communicate with sources outside the testing center.

I have heard other objections to the new measures. There will be no more standby registrations. As Akil Bello of Bell Curves pointed out, poorer students who lack easy access to connected computers will be most affected.

This article points out some other possible negative consequences.

Edit: Also read this article on the Bell Curves Blog.

Finally, the question remains: what should be done to the students who are caught cheating? Currently, the only penalty is having their scores cancelled.

What do you think?

What is the SAT?

The SAT is a standardized college admission test developed by The College Board. Many college require that applying students take the SAT, or its competitor, the ACT (you can learn about the differences between the tests here).

The SAT is presently known as the SAT Reasoning Test, to distinguish it from the SAT Subject Tests, which are also written by The College Board. The Subject Tests, as their name implies, test specific subjects. This article is about the SAT Reasoning Test.

The SAT is administered seven times a year at schools throughout the U.S. The fee for the SAT is $49 (needy students can apply for fee waivers).

The SAT has three types of sections: Reading, Math, and Writing (which includes an essay). Three sections of each type count towards your score. In addition, there is an Experimental (“Variable”) Section, which doesn’t count, but is used by The College Board to test questions for future SATs. The ten sections take a total of 3 hours and 45 minutes.

Students with special needs may apply for test accommodations, such as extra time or a live reader. Students who take the exam with extra time do not take the Experimental Section.

University of Chicago

Reading Section

There are 48 Passage-Based Reading (reading comprehension) questions, and 19 Sentence Completions.

Passages vary in length. Sometimes two related passages are given, and some questions will ask you to compare or contrast them.

Some examples: Questions may ask what is the main idea of a passage, or what the author’s tone is. You may be asked to define a word in context, or specify why the author included a quote.

Sentence Completions are sometimes called fill-ins. Sentences will have one or two blanks, and are asked to choose the answer that best completes each sentence.

Math Section

There are 44 multiple choice questions, and 10 student-produced responses (“grid-ins,” where you must fill in your answer).

Math topics include arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and some basic statistics and probability.

Calculators are permitted (be sure yours is approved for the SAT).

Writing Section

There are 25 “improving sentences,” 18 “identifying sentence errors,” 6 “improving paragraphs,” and 1 essay, which comprises an entire section.

The multiple choice questions test grammar and style, except for the “improving paragraphs” questions, which also test organizing paragraphs.

Each section is scored on a scale from 200 to 800, so 2400 is the highest possible score. On each section 500 is around average.

Click here for some sample questions of each type.

What to do During the Week Before the SAT

Here is some quick, common sense advice on what to do in the days leading up to your SAT, and on Test Day itself:

Obvious, but vital: You want to be stay healthy. Eat balanced meals and get a good night’s sleep.

You can continue to study for the exam, but don’t feel that you have to “go into overdrive.” Of course, if you haven’t started studying for the SAT, it’s too late to begin now. However, as James Bond and Mike McClenathan say, “never say die.”

If you do plan to study, it’s best to spend your time as efficiently as you can. If you’ve been struggling with a particular type of question, you might focus on reviewing that. On the other hand, don’t expect to gain much by studying vocabulary at this late date.

I advise most of my students not to study on the day before the SAT. Just relax and have a normal day, as long as “normal” isn’t too crazy for you.

Make sure your calculator is charged. You should use a calculator that you’re familiar with. Also bring a watch – preferably with a stopwatch or timer feature. Note that you are not allowed a watch that will make noise, or one that sits on your desk. And don’t forget your #2 pencils, your ticket, photo ID, and some snacks.

Here’s the College Board’s checklist.

English: A glass of Orange juice. Esperanto: O...

On Test Day

Naturally, you want to wake up early enough that you don’t have to rush. If you normally eat a big breakfast, do the same. It’s natural to be nervous before a big test, and you’ll only increase your anxiety if you break from your everyday routine.

You want to get to the test center a little early. If you care to socialize with other students, that’s fine, but I would recommend against talking about the content of the SAT. Wise guy remarks such as “you can’t ace the Math Section if you don’t know how to do derivatives” can induce nervousness.

Most students benefit from “revving up their brains” a little before the test. You might solve a few Sentence Completions or easy Math problems before you’re seated (you can store practice materials in a backpack, which might be left in a corner of the testing room).

You have the right to a good test-taking environment.

If you have a wobbly desk or chair, a flickering light overhead, or a student who won’t stop sneezing two desks away, be the squeaky wheel and ask the proctor to change your seat. Normally, you probably don’t want to be a troublemaker, and you know the proctor may find your request to be a nuisance. Be polite, but firm, and explain why you simply can’t take the SAT under adverse conditions.

Above all, remember what got you here. I’ve had too many students who have aced their last few practice tests, only to see their scores drop on the actual exam. Don’t focus too hard on getting a good score. Instead, focus on using the techniques that you’ve learned properly. Then good scores will follow.

Don’t try to “cruise” the exam. If anything, try to think a little harder than you did on practice SATs.

Relax and concentrate.

Can You Improve Your Speed on the SAT?


For the sake of simplicity, let’s say that there are two factors that affect one’s pacing on the SAT, which we’ll call “brain speed” and “habit speed.”

Brain speed is somewhat analogous to processor speed in a computer. It cannot be easily changed; some people’s brains move from thought to thought faster than others’. I don’t know if there’s any correlation between brain speed and intelligence. Over many years teaching students, I have observed some very smart people with slow brain speed (even a couple of geniuses), and some who aren’t as smart, but who process quickly.

If you’re a brainiac who processes slowly, there’s no reason you can’t be successful in a variety of fields. However, standardized tests such as the SAT can be something of a stumbling block. Arguably, students are given less time to solve questions on the SAT than they will be on college exams. In an earlier article, I proposed that the SAT would be fairer if it were administered over two days.

However, only a small minority of students have a brain speed so slow that it prevents them from answering most of the questions on the SAT. That is, most students who leave more than a handful of blanks do so largely out of “habit speed,” and will be able to speed up.

English: Lamborghini Diablo seen during Concou...

Before I get into specific methods of speeding up, I want to mention one relevant issue that only affects part of the test: reading speed. If you’re a slow reader, you will have trouble with sections that include passages. Of course, it is possible to improve reading speed. You might take a speed reading course (live or online). But if you have a learning disability that affects reading speed (and don’t qualify for special accommodations), or if English in not your primary language, you may still have a problem. Note that there are ways to approach the Reading questions without reading the entire passage. Unfortunately, they are beyond the scope of this article.

The advice I want to offer here is straightforward, but the process of improving your pace can be frustrating. The SAT is already quite challenging, and devoting some of your focus and energy to pacing may throw you off. Your scores may even drop temporarily, but you shouldn’t let that bother you.

Remember that, whatever your overall pace, you should begin slowly on each question. Review what I said about pacing like a golf swing in this article.

Using New Techniques to Speed Up

Whether you are studying from books, websites, or live teachers, you will learn new techniques to solve SAT questions, such as plugging in and anticipation. These techniques are designed to help you answer more questions correctly; they almost always help you solve faster as well. My students often question this. “They ask, if I take all that time anticipating, won’t I have trouble finishing the sections?” At first, you may slow down as you struggle with new methods. But eventually, that extra bit of time you spend at the beginning of a question will you help you to solve more efficiently – i.e. faster.

When you first learn new methods, it is more important to concentrate on using them properly than on scoring high and/or finishing quickly. Have patience, and your results will improve over time.

English: Sukhoi T-50, b/n 51.

Improving “Habit Speed”

I’ve had many students who believed they were slow thinkers, but actually weren’t. How can you tell? After many years of teaching, I can usually estimate a student’s potential “thinking speed” after a lesson or two; perhaps you know a teacher who can do the same. Also, based on completely unscientific observation, I’ve noticed a strong (and perhaps surprising) correlation between hand speed and brain speed. It’s not foolproof, but if you have quick hands, you may be a potentially fast thinker.

I use the term “habit speed” since I’ve found that many students solve slowly because they have become comfortable doing so. After all, time-pressure is not such a great factor on most tests, so there’s no incentive to practice performing at top speed.

Since speeding up will entail leaving your “comfort zone,” it is only natural that your accuracy will suffer somewhat, until you become comfortable and familiar with your new pace.

I did not invent the technique I am about to describe. In fact, it’s simple enough that I’m sure many people have thought of it on their own. To give due credit, I actually got the idea from a Karate expert named Dan Anderson. His instructor had told him never to perform a martial arts technique faster than he could with perfect form. However, when Anderson became a teacher, he found that such a rigid approach retarded his students’ development. Instead, he encouraged them to perform their techniques a little faster than they could perfectly. They became fast fighters quickly, and won a lot of tournaments.

You can apply this idea to solving SAT questions. Don’t go crazy and try to increase your speed by 50 per cent in one sitting. Aim for an increase of 10 – 15 per cent. If your score stays the same, that’s good. If it drops, you can try it again on another test. Once you are doing well, you can then try increasing your speed again. At some point, you may decide that you’ve gone too far, and need to back off a bit.

This method is not Nobel Prize-winning material, but it should be simple to implement. Just remember these two precepts: a little at a time, and be patient with your scores.

As you can imagine, this technique is a lot more helpful to some students than others. If you find that your speed doesn’t improve by that much, remember that you can still get a very nice score even if you leave out 5 questions on each section. And if you do speed up a lot, be careful not to overdo it. It’s not worth making careless errors by trying to save time for the longer, harder questions that are found at the end of most SAT sections.

SAT Book Review Winners

Here are my recommendations based on the materials I’ve reviewed to date:

Two independently published specialty guides lead the pack:

PWN the SAT Math Guide by Mike McClenathan


The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar by Erica Meltzer

They are simply the best books available in their respective subjects.

Although I have not reviewed them, I keep hearing great things about these (from SAT experts around the country):

Direct Hits Core Vocabulary of the SAT

Direct Hits Toughest Vocabulary of the SAT

Of course, there’s more to the SAT than math, grammar, and vocabulary, so you’ll need a comprehensive SAT guide to cover the entire test. The winner (by a nose) is:

McGraw-Hill’s SAT

A close second is:

Barron’s SAT

I placed McGraw-Hill’s book first because the practice tests are a little more realistic. However, I am listing the Barron’s book here because there are two useful accessory tools available:

Barron’s SAT Flash Cards

Barron’s Pass Key to the SAT

Vocabulary flash cards are also available from both Barron’s and McGraw-Hill.

If any authors or inventors would like me to review their books or products, please contact me via the About Page. Note that my review will represent my honest opinion; I don’t play favorites.

Where to buy these books on Amazon:

PWN the SAT Math Guide

The Ultimate Guide to SAT Grammar

Direct Hits Core Vocabulary of the SAT

Direct Hits Toughest Vocabulary of the SAT

Mc-Graw-Hill’s SAT

Mc-Graw-Hill’s SAT with CD-ROM

Barron’s SAT

Barron’s SAT with CD

Barron’s SAT Flash Cards

Barron’s Pass Key to the SAT

Review – SAT For Dummies

The title says it all. This is the worst SAT prep book I’ve reviewed to date.

A lot of the introductory material that can be found in the College Board “Blue Book” is also in SAT For Dummies, 8th edition, by Geraldine Woods et al. That’s the best thing I can say about the book.


576 pages

Introduction – SAT vs. ACT, about special needs students, what’s on the test, about scores

Information on section types

5 practice tests

More advice

The book is available with and without a CD, which includes vocabulary, 2 more tests, some essay prompts, and some basics from the book.


This makes an excellent gag gift for your favorite SAT teacher.


Very few strategies are given, and those are often poorly explained. Mostly, unrealistic example questions are presented, followed merely by explanations of why the answer is right.

There are many errors in this book.

The tests are some of the most unrealistic ones I’ve seen (even the wrong vocabulary words are tested – i.e. those not on the SAT).

The book without the CD has no vocabulary section.


This book probably sells reasonably well, because it’s part of the immensely popular “For Dummies” series. The idea of simple self-help books that don’t talk over reader’s heads is a great one. However, this book is useless for the reasons mentioned above.

I don’t want to rant too long, but here are a couple of examples of this book’s flaws:

There is no mention of plugging in, or many other useful math techniques that are found in most other SAT guides. To be fair, backsolving is mentioned.

The section on Sentence Completions begins with an explanation of what the questions entail, and a description of one- and two-blank questions (hint: one type has two blanks). But NO strategies for actually solving them are given. Instead, the author dives right into example questions (and poorly written ones at that), and merely explains why the answers are right. As I’ve already mentioned, this pattern is repeated throughout the book.

Here’s one of the sentences:

Although she was upset by the security guard’s close attention and stormed out of the lingerie store, Suzy Sunshine remained _______ for the rest of the day:

(A) braless
(B) serene
(C) annoyed
(D) joyful
(E) hungry

According to the author, the answer is (B). Of course, (D) is a perfectly valid answer, although (A) is my personal favorite.

No links for this one. Don’t buy it.