At least 20 current or former high school students from an affluent New York suburb of high achievers have been charged in a widening college entrance exam cheating scandal that has raised questions not only about test security but about the pressures to score well.
Thirteen students from the Great Neck area, a cluster of Long Island communities with top-ranked schools that send virtually all their graduates to college, were implicated in the latest round of charges, filed Tuesday. Seven others were arrested in September.
Prosecutors said 15 high school students hired five other people for anywhere from $500 to $3,600 each to take the SAT or ACT for them. The impostors – all of them college students who attended Great Neck-area public and private high schools – fooled test administrators by showing up for the exams with phony ID.
“Honest, hardworking students are taking a back seat to the cheaters,” Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice said. “This is a system begging for security enhancements.”
Prosecutors actually suspect 40 students were involved in the cheating, but the two-year statute of limitation had expired for the others, Rice said.
All the defendants but three, who were awaiting arraignment, pleaded not guilty.
The scandal prompted New York state lawmakers to convene a hearing on test security, and a firm run by former FBI Director Louis Freeh was retained by exam administrators to review procedures.
Prosecutors and others questioned the effectiveness of test security when it was revealed in September that a young man arrested in the scheme allegedly took the exam for a teenage girl.
The students who hired ringers registered to take the exam at different high schools from the ones they attended, so that their teachers would not realize what was going on.
Among the new defendants, those accused of taking the test for money were Joshua Chefec, 20; Adam Justin, 19; Michael Pomerantz, 18; and George Trane, 19. Justin attends Indiana University; Chefec goes to Tulane University; and Trane is at Stony Brook University. Prosecutors did not immediately know where Pomerantz is a student.
Chefec, Justin and Trane surrendered Tuesday and were charged with scheming to defraud, falsifying business records and criminal impersonation. They each face up to four years in prison if convicted. Pomerantz is expected to turn himself in next week.
The students accused of hiring others to take the exam are not being identified because they are being prosecuted as juveniles. They were charged with misdemeanors.
Prosecutors did not say where any of them may be attending college. And because of privacy reasons, they said they cannot even notify the colleges of the cheating allegations.
Brian Griffin, an attorney for two of the defendants, including Chefec, said that they are not guilty but that the allegations should be handled by the schools, not by the district attorney.
“You’re talking about students cheating on tests,” Griffin said. “You’re not talking about violent crime. You’re not talking about drugs. No one condones, but it does not belong in the criminal justice system.”
The scheme began to unravel after Great Neck North High School faculty members looked into rumors that students had paid someone to take the SAT for them, Rice said. Administrators then identified six students who had big discrepancies between their academic records and their SAT scores.
The allegations did not surprise many of those shopping and running errands in Great Neck on Tuesday afternoon.
“I’m not surprised,” said Robin Tobin-Hess. “I think there’s too much emphasis by the colleges on the SATs. Kids are under a lot of pressure to do well and in affluent areas, they’re going to do what they can to do it.”
Shawn Eshaghian, a social worker, argued that cheating is not limited to Great Neck, but conceded it is probably easier to accomplish here.
“A lot of people that have money are in this community,” he said, “and I’m sure the $2,500, as much as it was big money, especially for a kid, I’m sure their parents give them whatever they want anyway.”