SAT fraud amongst high school students

The motivations behind the cheating

A recent expose in the New York Times has uncovered an SAT cheating ring in the United States.  Five students from different high schools in Nassau County in Long Island, New York were paid up to $3,600 to take the tests for 15 other students. These were students who wanted to get into university but had low test scores, below-average marks, unembellished resumes, and, perhaps most importantly, the ability to pay the high price that these test takers charge.  The 15 students who hired the test-takers have now been charged with summary conviction offences, while the five test-takers have been charged with indictable offences.

The crimes were uncovered when a student at Great Neck North  High School confided to a guidance counselor that someone was being paid to take the SAT for others.  The principal of the school compared student’s GPA to SAT scores and noticed discrepancies for multiple students, particularly those who had taken the SAT at a different school so they would not be recognized.  The students were arrested in September of 2011, but they were not charged until December.  The school administration found it difficult to prove that cheating had occurred because College Board, the company that administers the tests, was reluctant to release information about the students.

The students’ motivation to cheat ultimately stems from the extremely competitive test-taking culture in North America, and the United States in particular.  There is an enormous amount of pressure on students to perform well, achieve high marks, and gain entrance to the best universities in the country which accept very few students given the number of applicants.  As the pressure to do well intensifies, so does the technology that enables the students to cheat.

Standardized tests are used as a supposedly fair and objective criterion with which different universities can evaluate prospective students. However, the high frequency of cheating on these tests suggests otherwise. Desperate students may believe that, with their below-average scores, their chances of admission to a respectable university are slim. In the case of the students in Long Island, working harder or lowering their expectations was not considered. Instead, they turned to cheating on the tests as a last resort.

But these students recieved little sympathy. As District Attorney of Nassau County, Kathleen Rice, stated in a press release, “The young men and women arrested today instead chose to scam the system and victimize their own friends and classmates, and for that they find themselves in handcuffs.”

At the centre of the scandal is Samuel Eshaghoff, a 2010 graduate of Great Neck North High School in Long Island, who allegedly took the SAT or ACT for fifteen other students over the course of three years, guaranteeing his clients high enough scores to gain university acceptances.

Eshaghoff – now a student at Emory University in Atlanta – will not face criminal charges for his acts. In lieu of a prison sentence, he has been sentenced to tutor underprivileged youth on their SATS.

That such dishonesty was possible – and easy – in Long Island raises questions about how widespread cheating on standardized tests might be throughout the United States.  There have been multiple cases of teachers helping students on standardized tests, as well as students communicating in the test room using codes or hand signals. Eshaghoff used fake identification to impersonate his clients, several of whom were female students.  In a 60 Minutes episode about the scandal, Eshaghoff spoke to Security during SAT testing. “I would say that between the SAT and ACT, the security is uniformly pathetic, in the sense that anybody with half a brain could get away with taking the test for anybody else.”

Eshaghoff admitted that while his family is wealthy, they are currently in financial and personal distress, which might explain the motivation behind his willingness to take the tests for other high school students.  Eshaghoff also revealed “altruistic” intentions in the 60 Minutes episode when he described himself as “saving someone’s life” by taking the test for them.  “I mean, a kid who has a horrible grade-point average, who – no matter how much he studies – is gonna totally bomb this test, by giving him an amazing score, I totally give him this . . . new lease on life. He’s gonna go to a totally new college. He’s gonna be bound for a totally new career and a totally new path on life.”

This most recent scandal raises questions about the privilege afforded to wealthier students when it comes to university admissions – the students who Eshaghoff was “saving,” after all, were paying up to $2,500 a test. Students from more affluent households tend to score better on standardized tests.  This may be due to a number of reasons:  they can afford to retake the tests and improve their scores, or they can pay for extensive practice courses and tutors.  Affluent students, like the ones in Nassau County, also tend to have competitive, status-conscious parents who pressure them to get into the best universities. The wealthiest students are not necessarily the most intelligent, but by paying their way through the required testing, their applications appear to be more impressive.