The case of a Great Neck, N.Y., man accused of being paid to take the SAT for high school students is once again prompting questions nationwide about how much cheating goes on in the world of high-stakes testing.
It's also renewing concerns that the pressure placed on students to score well on a single test, which plays a big role in determining the academic future for so many high-schoolers, may be encouraging them to cheat.
Six students at Great Neck North High School are facing misdemeanor charges for allegedly paying $1,500 to $2,500 to Samuel Eshaghoff to take the test for them, according to a news release Tuesday by Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice.
Mr. Eshaghoff is a 2010 graduate of the high school and went on to attend the University of Michigan and Emory University.
"Colleges look for the best and brightest students, yet these six defendants tried to cheat the system and may have kept honest and qualified students from getting into their dream school," Ms. Rice said in the statement. The defendants were not named by prosecutors because of their ages.
Eshaghoff, facing a felony charge and a possibility of four years in prison, is accused of using IDs with his photo, but with the other students' names, to take the SAT on their behalf. Some of his scores were above 2100, Ms. Rice said. A result of 2400 represents a perfect score on the test.
Great Neck is a wealthy community, and the fact that such a scandal is playing out there "is an illustration of the SAT arms race that takes place, particularly in very affluent towns where kids think they are failures unless they go to a school where their parents would be proud to put the bumper sticker in their back window," says Robert Schaeffer, spokesman for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing in Boston, Mass., which tracks and critiques standardized tests.
By some measures, the majority of American youths feel that cheating on tests is justified. In a Josephson Institute of Ethics survey of 43,000 high school students this year, 59 percent admitted cheating on a test during the past year, with 34 percent doing it more than two times. Yet 92 percent of the students said they were satisfied with their personal ethics and character.
Cheating scandals in education have cropped up in all forms recently. "The real question is, as a society do we really want to take this seriously or only deal with it when people are unlucky enough to get caught?" says Michael Josephson, founder and president of the Josephson Institute. "We're raising the next generation of corporate villains and pirates if we don't reinforce with vigor and consistency the absolute essentiality of integrity."
The SAT and ACT, another college admissions test, generally play a major role not only in whether a student gets into a school, but also on the type of grants or other financial aid they receive.
But it's difficult to know how widespread various forms of cheating are on such tests. It's more common to hear about sharing answers during the tests, which are often monitored by underpaid and overworked proctors, Mr. Schaeffer, a critic of standardized testing, says.
Prosecutions for impersonations such as this one are rare, he adds, though there have been sporadic reports and investigations over the years, particularly back in the 1990s when student athletes had to get a minimum SAT score to qualify to play – a rule that has since been changed.
The Educational Testing Service, which administers about 2.3 million SAT tests in a given year, cancels about 1,000 of those scores, primarily because of students copying answers, says spokesman Tom Ewing. Impersonations are extremely rare, he says. Overall, proctors do a good job, and their pay was recently increased, Mr. Ewing adds.
School officials in Great Neck contacted ETS about their suspicions, and after communicating with the six students, ETS decided to cancel their SAT scores. Whether the colleges inquire into the reasons why, or the high school counselors contact the colleges, is up to them, not to ETS, he says.
Anecdotes flowing among students suggest cheating on the SAT may not be as rare as the cases that are caught.
On the website CollegeConfidential.com, a college-admissions forum, posts to a recent discussion thread on SAT cheating included a wide range of examples of how students cheat, including these anonymous comments on impersonation:
• "My school's valedictorian from last year got 600 dollars for taking the SAT for this other kid who made him a fake school ID." The valedictorian went to Harvard, the other student went to Amherst College, according to the post.
• "One kid at my school was desperate and paid about $2,000" for an imposter to take the SAT.
• "At my highly competitive school, lots of people (knowing my SAT) have approached me about it, offering hundreds of dollars. Though I have of course refused, it's clear that someone could easily make thousands of dollars doing so. There's a massive market of wealthy kids whose parents have deep pockets and high expectations."
"This emphasis on test prepping goes hand in hand with the escalating cheating, and the pressure these kids feel to do well on the tests ... makes kids feel cheating is necessary," says Sally Rubenstone, a Massachusetts-based senior advisor with College Confidential, who is quick to note she doesn't condone the cheating.
"If any good comes out of this [arrest], it's to send admission officials back to the drawing board to design a process that is fairer," Ms. Rubenstone says.
About 865 colleges and universities no longer use SAT or ACT scores for most of their admissions decisions, in part to cut down on the pressure surrounding the testing and admissions process, Schaeffer says.
District Attorney Rice said security should be increased around the SATs, with photos being taken of the students who show up to take the test and those photos being attached to the scores, so guidance counselors can quickly spot mismatches.
In some cheating scandals, educators have been the ones caught up in the pressure for high scores – most recently in Atlanta public schools. But in this case, educators can be credited for investigating when they heard rumors about cheating.
Administrators at Great Neck North looked at the scores of students who had taken the test at other schools and had large discrepancies between their academic records and their SAT scores, Rice said.
The DA is also investigating whether such cheating occurred in two other high schools in Nassau County.