November 22, 2011
Schools do not write the SAT or administer it. But when school officials at Great Neck North High School suspected that students were cheating on the exam, their investigation led prosecutors down a trail that has resulted in criminal charges against 20 students and calls for widespread test reform. Bernard Kaplan, the principal of Great Neck North, said he believed cheating was pervasive. “I think it’s widespread across the country,” he said Tuesday. “We were the school that stood up to it.”
On Tuesday, Nassau County prosecutors accused 13 students from five schools of accepting payment or paying others to take the SAT and ACT between 2008 and 2011. Eleven students turned themselves in; two are expected to do so next week, prosecutors said. The arrests, coming two months after seven other Nassau students were accused of cheating on the tests, seemed to underscore the district attorney’s assertion that security measures for the tests, administered by ACT Inc. and the Educational Testing Service, are inadequate, leading to widespread cheating.
“When this cheating scandal was first reported, E.T.S. said that this was an isolated incident, and that the SAT was secure,” Kathleen M. Rice, the Nassau County district attorney, said in a news conference. “I’m glad to know, now, that E.T.S. appreciates that this is a larger problem.”
The investigation began when administrators at Great Neck North looked into student rumors. Their focus soon fell on students who had registered to take the tests outside the district, and those whose scores and grades showed a disparity. They turned over the details to prosecutors, who opened a broad examination.
In September, prosecutors accused Sam Eshaghoff, 19, of impersonating six students, including a girl, to take tests for them. Officials allege that students paid Mr. Eshaghoff up to $3,500 per test for scores ranking as high as the 97th percentile. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
The arrests on Tuesday included three people accused of accepting payment to take tests and eight who the authorities say paid impersonators to take tests for them. One student has declined to surrender. Those accused of fraudulently taking tests face felony charges of scheming to defraud, as well as misdemeanor charges of falsifying business records and criminal impersonation.
Among those charged with taking the tests for others on Tuesday were Joshua Chefec, 20, now a senior at Tulane, and Michael Pomerantz, 18, both of whom attended Great Neck North; Adam Justin, 19, a graduate of North Shore Hebrew Academy and a student at Indiana University; and George Trane, 19, a graduate of Great Neck South who now attends SUNY Stony Brook. Officials said Mr. Pomerantz, citing a medical condition, told them he would surrender Monday; the others turned themselves in Tuesday morning.
Of the students charged with paying to have the test taken for them, five were from Great Neck North, two from North Shore Hebrew Academy High School and one from Roslyn High School.
Because those accused of paying test takers were 19 or under and face only misdemeanor charges, their identities will not be made public, a spokesman for Ms. Rice said.
Matin Emanou, Mr. Eshaghoff’s lawyer, as well as the lawyers representing the latest students arrested, have argued that their clients are not guilty, and that the situation should be handled by the schools, not in the courts. “While no one condones cheating, we have a school system that is separate and apart from the criminal justice system, and we have that for good reason,” said Brian Griffin, a Nassau County lawyer representing Mr. Chefec, who was accused of taking the test for others. Mr. Griffin said his client was not part of a “ring,” but was rather accused of having taken two tests for one student. “It’s not a systematic scheme to defraud when you’re alleged to have acted with one person,” he said.
Gerard McCloskey, a Nassau lawyer who represents a student who is charged with paying someone to take the test and who is still in high school, said, “My feeling is that it should be handled administratively by the College Board and the school board, not criminally, especially when the county is experiencing budget issues and resources are limited to begin with.” The College Board owns the SAT.
Ms. Rice argued that impersonating others, creating fake IDs, paying significant sums of money and submitting fraudulent scores to colleges — in a highly competitive college admissions landscape — warranted attention from her office. “This is a crime,” she said. “Make no mistake, as the system stands now, hard-working students are taking a back seat to the cheaters.” She said her office had no evidence that parents were aware of the payments.
At a State Senate meeting on Oct. 24, legislators and school officials accused the College Board and Educational Testing Service of having lax security and a system that failed to punish cheats. Currently, if a score is suspect, E.T.S. investigates. If cheating is uncovered, the score is canceled and the student is permitted to get a refund and take the test again. Neither the student’s high school nor any college is notified.
Educational Testing Service has said that a New York law prohibits the company from releasing information about cheating. Prosecutors say the law simply prohibits disclosure of the investigation: Once cheating has been proven, they maintain, the testing service has full authority to report the outcome to third parties. Prosecutors and legislators have said that the law should be re-examined and that proven cheats should face consequences.
At first, the testing service took the position that impersonations and cheating were isolated. Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board, took a different tack at the October hearing, and said the board had hired the firm led by Louis J. Freeh, a former head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, to investigate security measures.
Nassau prosecutors investigated 40 students in total. They were hamstrung, Ms. Rice said, by a statute of limitations and poor document retention by the testing service and its vendors. “This is a system begging for security enhancements, reform to ensure disclosure of cheating to high schools, and better data retention by E.T.S. and ACT Inc. to ensure cheating cases can be properly investigated,” Ms. Rice said.