Exclusive: ACT partners with test-prep firms despite signs of cheating in Asia

September 7, 2016 3:29 PM EDT

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By Steve Stecklow, Alexandra Harney and Ju-min Park

LONDON/SHANGHAI/SEOUL (Reuters) - Standardized testing giant ACT Inc continues to partner with Asian test-preparation operators, despite widespread cheating at overseas education centers it licenses.

The maker of America’s most popular college entrance exam approved South Korea’s Seoul Scholars International school to administer the ACT test this year, Reuters found, even though the school is owned by a company that offers test-preparation services. That company’s test-prep center says on one of its websites that its students achieve “astonishing” increases in their ACT scores.

In the past year, ACT Inc has also licensed a Chinese company to operate an “ACT Club” to promote the test in China. Reuters found that the club offers ACT test-prep classes. And the website of the company that licensed the club makes this pledge to clients: “100% admission to famous overseas universities, or your money back.”

According to its website, ACT Club has an exclusive arrangement with the University of Macau to begin offering students the ACT exam next month. The club and the university declined to answer questions about their relationship.

ACT officials said in June that centers where the exam is given are not allowed to offer commercial test-preparation services. Doing so could give the operators of cram schools an unparalleled ability to help their clients by showing them the test ahead of time.

The next administration of the ACT is scheduled this Saturday.

ACT Inc spokesman Ed Colby declined to explain why the Iowa-based not-for-profit is allowing the South Korean school to offer the ACT, given the school’s corporate ties to a test-prep center.

Colby said ACT Club and its parent company, Beijing EduGlobal Development Co Ltd, “are forbidden to be involved in administration of the ACT test.” Colby did not respond to questions about the club’s connection to the University of Macau and plans to offer the ACT there next month.

In recent years, the ACT has grown in popularity overseas as its rival, the College Board, has struggled to protect its own test, the SAT. Both of the American testing organizations say they face international fraud rings, based in East Asia, that are intent on compromising their respective exams. The ACT and SAT are used by thousands of U.S. colleges to help select from among millions of student applicants.

In June, a leaked test forced ACT Inc to cancel sittings for its exam in Hong Kong and South Korea. Reuters reported in July that ACT’s security unit repeatedly recommended tighter safeguards overseas before the breach but that ACT executives rejected the recommendations. That unit, composed of about a dozen people based at ACT’s Iowa City, Iowa, headquarters, handles security for thousands of test centers in 177 countries. This month, it is laying off its head of security.

Reuters also detailed cheating in the ACT-owned Global Assessment Certificate program. The program offers college preparation classes, has about 5,000 students and operates in about 200 ACT-licensed education centers, mostly in China and other parts of Asia. (http://reut.rs/2akY3uf)

Seven students who attended three GAC centers in China described how school officials and proctors ignored and were sometimes complicit in cheating on the ACT. Reuters also identified GAC centers in China and South Korea that administered the ACT and offered commercial test-prep classes. Teachers or administrators who have worked at seven Chinese GAC centers also described cheating in program courses.

In response to the Reuters findings, the ACT subsidiary that oversees the GAC program pledged to audit the centers “just to see how bad it is,” said Andrew Todd, group general manager of ACT Education Solutions Ltd, the Hong Kong-headquartered for-profit unit.

Colby said ACT Inc now ships test booklets in reinforced boxes that have combination locks “to all areas of high concern.” The locks can’t be opened until test day, he said. Employees at two Hong Kong test sites told Reuters they had received lock boxes for this Saturday’s test.

But Reuters spoke to three test center administrators in Shanghai and Taiwan who said their materials arrived in cardboard boxes -- in one case about three weeks ago. ACT normally instructs overseas test centers to open the boxes within 24 hours, count the test booklets and reseal the boxes -- a procedure some administrators say could lead to leaked exams.

A PERFECT SCORE

The South Korean school set to administer the ACT, Seoul Scholars International, is owned by Dasan Educations. Dasan also operates a test-prep center called PSU Edu. PSU boasts that students who took its ACT prep classes in 2014-2015 experienced an average gain of five points; a perfect score is 36. In a testimonial on one of its websites, a high school student described scoring no higher than 30 before taking a PSU summer course and then achieving a perfect 36.

An official at PSU declined to comment; Dasan officials could not be reached.

ACT spokesman Colby said that “all prospective ACT test centers are specifically asked if they engage in test prep activities for the ACT.”

Hong Gi-myon, the Seoul Scholars International employee who administers the ACT there, said the school applied directly to ACT Inc’s headquarters in Iowa to become a test center. It administered its first ACT in April, Hong said. He said ACT officials did not ask the school about its corporate connection to a test-prep center. Hong called PSU “a totally separate company.”

The China-based ACT Club is an effort to help students learn English and prepare for overseas study, said ACT’s Colby. He said ACT licensed the club to EduGlobal, which Colby said is “an educational solutions and service provider, not a test-prep organization.”

But an ACT Club staff member who gave her name as Gao told Reuters that the club’s services include ACT test-prep courses costing about $900 and $2,100.

EduGlobal boasts on its website of having “produced outstanding application materials” for a student who was accepted by two Ivy League graduate schools. The EduGlobal website promises clients the money-back guarantee if they’re not accepted by “famous overseas” schools.

David Shi, EduGlobal’s chief executive, declined to discuss ACT Club or the company’s relationship with ACT Inc. He said the claims on its website are the result of “exaggerated” language by its marketing department.

(Reporting By Steve Stecklow in London, Alexandra Harney in Shanghai, and Ju-min Park in Seoul. Edited by Blake Morrison.)



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