Does the U.S. Need to Crack Down on SAT Cheats Overseas?

Students take part in SAT exams in Hong Kong, China on October 3, 2015. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

(Reuters) - A U.S. congressman called on the Department of Homeland Security to address whether foreign students are cheating on the SAT to get into American universities and illegally qualify for U.S. visas.

In a letter dated Wednesday and sent to the Homeland Security department, Representative Matt Salmon cited a March report by Reuters that detailed "the widespread practice of strategic cheating on the SAT by test preparation centers in Asia" and what he termed the "passive approach" of the test's owner – the College Board – to stop cheating overseas.

Salmon, a Republican from Arizona and a member of a House committee on education, wrote in the letter that "certain foreign students could fraudulently gain the upper-hand in college admissions by high test scores due to being prepared by these dishonest test-prep centers, thus limiting the options of those students who took the test honestly."

Thousands of U.S. colleges use the standardized test to help select applicants.

"I am concerned that under-qualified students are being admitted to U.S. schools under false pretenses," Salmon wrote.

About 761,000 degree-seeking foreign students currently study in the United States, according to the Institute of International Education. "With such a generous foreign student system," Salmon wrote, "it is important that we take every effort to ensure its integrity."

Homeland Security requires visas for international students to study in the United States. A prospective student must be admitted to a U.S. school before applying for a student visa, and Salmon asked the department whether it had "any estimates on how many students may have entered the U.S. with faulty test scores."

In an interview Thursday, Salmon said that he wants to ensure that "we're not encouraging a bunch of cheats to come and study in our schools."

The College Board, the New York-based not-for-profit that owns the SAT, did not respond to requests for comment.

Gillian Christensen, deputy press secretary for Homeland Security, said the department will respond to Salmon's letter. In an email, she said the department "is committed to ensuring the integrity of the student visa system, while protecting the freedoms and openness that are the hallmarks of our country."

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement "will aggressively pursue those who seek to exploit and corrupt America's legal immigration system for personal gain," Christensen wrote.

Reuters reported in March that the College Board has often reused tests overseas after first giving them in America months or years earlier, even after some test questions began circulating online. College Board officials have said they are unable to assess how many test-takers have seen actual exam material before taking the SAT. But Reuters found students who had attended test-preparation centers in China and who said they had seen questions ahead of time from SATs they subsequently took.

Reuters identified 14 times since late 2013 when parts of an SAT given internationally had been publicly exposed before the exam was given overseas. A confidential PowerPoint presentation, prepared by College Board officials in June 2013, revealed that parts of nine of 18 exams in the organization's global inventory had been "compromised." Even so, College Board officials confirmed that some portions of those tainted tests were later administered overseas.

In his letter to Homeland Security, Salmon wrote: "I was greatly disturbed by recent news reports regarding The College Board's passive approach to preventing and addressing cheating on the SAT test abroad."