Exclusive: FBI raids home of ex-College Board official in probe of SAT leak
By Renee Dudley and John Shiffman
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Federal agents searched the home of a former employee-turned-outspoken critic of the College Board, the standardized testing giant, as part of an investigation into the breach of hundreds of questions from the SAT college entrance exam.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation seized computers and other material on Friday from Manuel Alfaro, who left his job as executive director of assessment design and development at the College Board in February 2015. The FBI is investigating alleged computer intrusion and theft against an unidentified “victim corporation” involving “confidential or proprietary information,” including tests, test forms and internal emails, according to a search warrant issued in the case.
Alfaro had contacted officials of seven state governments in recent months, accusing the College Board of making false claims about its tests when bidding for public contracts with the states. The College Board, he alleged, misled the states about the process it used to create questions for the new version of the SAT, resulting in an inferior exam. He also aired those allegations publicly, largely through postings on his LinkedIn account.
Lawyers for Alfaro could not be reached for comment. An FBI official confirmed that agents were present at Alfaro’s home in Maryland but declined to elaborate.
College Board spokesman Zach Goldberg said the leak of test questions constituted a crime. “We are pleased that this crime is being pursued aggressively,” he said. He dismissed Alfaro’s criticisms of the SAT test-making process as “patently false.”
The FBI raid comes after Reuters reported earlier this month (http://reut.rs/2b3gtyE) that the news agency had obtained about 400 unpublished questions from the newly redesigned SAT exam, which debuted in March. Some experts said the leak constituted one of the most serious breaches of security ever to come to light in the standardized testing industry.
Reuters reported previously that the SAT (http://reut.rs/1RL4ZSI) and its rival, the ACT, (http://reut.rs/2akY3uf) are being systematically gamed by test-prep operators in Asia. The SAT has proved particularly vulnerable to cheating because of its practice of reusing test questions. Test-preparation companies obtain previously administered questions that are scheduled for reuse and feed those questions to students, who can score higher by practicing on the exam items before the test.
BROADSIDES ON LINKEDIN
The SAT and ACT are taken by millions of students a year and are major criteria used by U.S. colleges in selecting applicants. The cheating rings and leaks, testing experts say, call into question the fairness and validity of the standardized exams.
Alfaro, who oversaw the development of parts of the new SAT, jolted the staid world of standardized testing in May with a barrage of criticism of the College Board.
In a series of posts on LinkedIn and Twitter, he charged the New York-based not-for-profit with skipping a crucial step in the test development process, which he says resulted in a lower-quality exam. He also alleged in a June 1 post that the shortcut may fail to comply with federal guidance on peer review for state testing programs.
Alfaro wrote to seven states that have granted public contracts to the College Board to use the SAT as an official tool for assessing high school students. In a May 7 email to the education chiefs for those states, Alfaro said that while he was a College Board employee, he “became aware of patterns of concealment, fabrication, and deception used by the College Board to misrepresent the SAT and PSAT.” He alleged that the College Board didn’t follow the process to develop the SAT and PSAT that it publicly says it uses.
The PSAT is a test primarily aimed at high school sophomores and juniors used as practice for the SAT and to screen applicants for tens of millions of dollars awarded by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation.
Alfaro emailed his complaints to the states of Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Michigan and New Hampshire.
A spokesman for the Michigan Department of Education, Bill DiSessa, said the state “checked with the College Board” and decided not to look into Alfaro’s claims. Jeremy Meyer of the Colorado Department of Education said the state discussed Alfaro’s email with the College Board and was “satisfied with the response we received.”
Kelly Donnelly, spokesperson for the Connecticut State Department of Education, said the state considered Alfaro’s email to be “replete with hyperbole, but scant on actual facts. We did not take further action.” Donnelly said the state hadn’t reviewed Alfaro’s detailed posts on LinkedIn.
A New Hampshire official said the state had no immediate comment. Officials in Delaware, Illinois and Maine didn’t respond to requests for comment.
ALLEGATIONS OF SHORTCUTS
A member of Congress, meanwhile, has asked federal regulators to look into Alfaro’s allegations. U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat from Maryland, has “been in touch with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau,” according to a July 28 letter she wrote to Alfaro.
Asked Friday about Alfaro’s criticisms of the new exam, College Board spokesman Goldberg said: “Mr. Alfaro does not speak with any authority about our tests. With the new SAT, we have made an unprecedented commitment to transparency and have published our test specifications, which include the test development process. Any claims that counter the published information are patently false.”
The document cited by Goldberg contains a nine-step process for developing the new SAT and ensuring that exams contain fair and valid questions. It’s the fourth of those steps that Alfaro says the College Board routinely skipped, according to his posts on LinkedIn. That step, known as “external content & fairness reviews prior to pretesting,” relates to the checks that new questions are supposed to undergo before they are included on an actual test.
According to the College Board document, newly written SAT questions are scrutinized by external, independent reviewers, who look for mistakes and potential bias. After that initial review, the questions are field tested on actual test-takers in an unscored section of a regular SAT exam.
The field testing helps determine whether questions are statistically valid and whether they should be included on a future, scored portion of the exam. After the field test, questions once again go through external reviews before they’re put on a live, scored section of the test.
The external reviews before field testing didn’t always happen, Alfaro alleged.
“The Content Advisory Committee reviewed the items for the first time, not before they were pretested, but after the items were assembled into operational SAT forms,” he wrote in a May 27 post on LinkedIn. In a June 9 post, he added: “We first implemented Step 4 in August of 2014, after thousands of items had already been developed and pretested without this crucial step.”
An internal document from 2014 describes what the College Board called the “rigorous process of vetting new test items that could potentially become part of the Math Test in the redesigned SAT.” The document says changing items after pretesting was “rare.”
Alfaro said such changes were actually common. “I’m not talking about adding a missing comma here, fixing a typo there,” he wrote in a May 20 post. “Sometimes the revised items,” or questions, “are completely different than the version that was pretested.”
An outside attorney for the College Board wrote to Alfaro on May 10, three days after Alfaro contacted the states with his allegations, and requested a meeting. Alfaro declined to see the attorney. But he said he would be open to explaining his concerns to the organization’s Board of Trustees and to lawyers for the seven states, according to an email he sent the states. No such sessions took place.
Inside the organization, the College Board’s top attorney has called Alfaro a “disgruntled former employee” and told staff to avoid him.
“I am writing to alert you that the College Board is dealing with a disgruntled former employee who has expressed anger at the College Board in a very public way,” College Board general counsel Peter Schwartz wrote in an email to staff. “Please be aware that he has no reason to visit our offices, and in the event that he does, he should not be allowed in.”
Reached by phone on Friday, Schwartz declined to comment.
(Edited by Michael Williams)