Most Chinese students work hard to clear tests for admission to US universities. Some others just cheat, and more than a few are caught.
In 2014, about 8,000 Chinese students were expelled from US universities, most of them for fraud or for their poor academic performance.
Scams involving Chinese students who attempted to game international tests are reported almost every year. Between 2015 and 2016, three students from China, who aspired to study in US colleges but repeatedly failed to achieve the minimum score required in TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), paid a Chinese student in the US to appear for them and clear the test. They succeeded in their scheme, but the law caught up with them before long.
The three students, all in their early 20s and students at the University of Pennsylvania, Northeastern University, and Arizona State University, along with their imposter, who was a student at Hult International Business School near Boston, were charged with conspiring to defraud the US. They faced five years in prison in the US, three years’ supervised release, a fine of $250,000, and deportation after serving the sentence.
In 2015, 15 Chinese nationals were indicted on charges of paying impostors to take TOEFL and the GRE (Graduate Record Examination, administered by the ETS, or Educational Testing Services), besides the SAT (formerly Scholastic Aptitude Test, now simply “SAT,” administered by the ETS and the College Board), and thus conspiring to defraud the two organizations.
In 2013, a student in China got a US-based graduate student to take college-entrance tests for her in Pennsylvania for $6,000 for TOEFL and $2,000 for SAT and managed to secure admission to Virginia Tech in 2014. The deal was negotiated by a Chinese company, which contacted a broker, who, in turn, contracted the imposter who took the test. In 2015, the student and her accomplices were arrested, and in 2016, they pleaded guilty to the charges, says an article in The Atlantic. Brokers use computer-enhanced photographs to create fake passports that allow imposters to take tests for students in any part of the world, not just SAT and TOEFL, but also GRE.
There are much older instances of Chinese students cheating in exams for US admissions and receiving punishment. In 1992, about 10,000 TOEFL scores were canceled in China, and in 1994, the entrance-test scores of 30,000 students in the same country were wiped out after it was found that test papers had been leaked.
Agents and test-prep firms have also been found guilty of fraud and received their just deserts. In 1996, an agent, George Kobayashi, was arrested for defrauding the administrators of GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test), GRE, and TOEFL. For $6,000, he flew students to Los Angeles to take the tests, and had test experts take the same tests in New York and pass on the answers to the students in Los Angeles, taking advantage of the three-hour time difference between the two cities.
In 2001, a Chinese school, New Oriental School, was accused of accessing and using unreleased GRE and TOEFL test material for coaching students. More recently, in 2010, two lecturers were charged with sourcing a SAT paper from a Thai student in Bangkok and emailing the paper to their students who were taking the test in Connecticut, taking advantage of the time difference between the two cities.
China hardly has any monopoly over exam cheating. It has happed in other countries, too. The ETS cancelled three GRE tests conducted in India in early 1990 after it was found that question papers had been sold at some test centers. In 1994 in the US, a nation-wide cheating operation was discovered: hundreds of students had paid $9,000 for answers to graduate-school and English proficiency tests. Test-takers who had taken the exam in New York City had conveyed the answers over telephone to accomplices in Chicago and Los Angeles, who passed on the answers to test-takers in later time zones.
In 2002, students in China, Korea, and Taiwan shared GRE verbal questions on websites, to help students taking the exam later. They took advantage of the fact that ETS recycled questions for tests conducted later. Also in 2002, the ETS cancelled GRE computer science test in India and China as some Asian websites had leaked questions from earlier tests.
In 2007, the scores of all 900 students who had taken the GRE in South Korea were withdrawn as it was found that some students had seen the test questions before the exam. In 2008, the SAT scores of some students at a high school in Los Angeles were cancelled for the same reason. In 2013, SAT tests were cancelled in South Korea after reports of question paper leakage.
A Reuters report says that the main factors that allow fraudsters outside the United States to operate is the practice of reusing US tests papers in other countries at a later date and the high frequency of tests overseas, which increase the chances of questions that have already appeared in US tests appearing in tests in other countries. In 1994, Kaplan Educational Centers, a coaching institution, found that GRE questions were being repeated, and that test-takers could memorize questions and sell them so that examinees taking the test later could score high.
Reuters has found that parts of the January 2017 SAT held in China repeated questions from the US test of June 2016. Students in China sold the questions in South Korea. The College Board cancelled the scores of an undisclosed number of students. Indeed, Reuters says its investigation has unearthed 14 instances between late 2013 and early 2016 when SAT content was publicly exposed before an international test day.
More than 1.67 million Class of 2014 test-takers took the SAT all over the world, according to an article in The Washington Post. About 1.53 million were US students, and the rest, about 140,000, from other countries, mainly China. As the SAT is meant for a large number of students, the questions are recycled to save costs. One complete version of SAT is said to take 30 months to prepare and cost $1 million.
Test-prep companies are a flourishing industry in China, and many of them do more than teach their clients the test topics. Some of them make available a booklet, essentially an answer key that test-takers can use to score high. As the test administrators reuse questions, test-prep companies can create a bank of questions, some of which appear on the actual test.
Some test-prep companies have agents appearing for tests and memorizing questions so that they can help create question banks. Some agents even manage to photograph the question paper. They also use questions posted on websites by American students. Sometimes test-prep centers are able to obtain actual SAT question papers.
The Atlantic quoted a top ETS official as saying that the organization was aware that professional test-takers were operating in the US, and that steps were being taken against them. The Atlantic also quoted a spokesperson for the College Board as saying that the board was constantly monitoring websites advertising illegal test-taking services.
The College Board, which planned to alert law enforcement about individuals and companies, has said that it would reduce the number of SAT tests outside the US from six to four (October, December, March, and May), increase the auditing of test centers, and reduce the reuse of US test questions overseas, according to Reuters. It had earlier reduced the number of tests in a test cycle from six to four in South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, but had not done so in China despite knowing about websites that hacked SAT tests, according to Reuters.
Not just in SAT, GRE, and other international tests, Chinese students have been known to have resorted to illegal means for clearing the all-important National Higher Education Entrance Examination, known as “gaokao,” China’s equivalent of SAT. In 2016, 9.4 million high-school students appeared for gaokao for three million undergraduate places, according to a Time magazine report. One in ten test-takers get into a top-tier university. But one in four students don’t enter a tertiary institution at all.
In comparison, about 584,000 candidates took the GRE the world over in the 2015-16 test year; 46,000 of them were Mainland Chinese candidates. As many as 261,000 GMAT tests were taken in 2016, including 125,000 in Asia.
Besides cheating in tests, Chinese students have also been accused of getting agents to write their essays. US admission officials have come across applicants who could not put together a proper email submit persuasive admission essays about why they want to study in a US school or university. Chinese candidates have also been accused of falsifying transcripts and recommendation letters
Many Chinese students are not familiar with the complicated admissions procedure in US universities as the college-admissions process in China often consists of just one entrance exam. Many agencies operate in China to help applicants enter US universities, though only about 500 have been certified by the Chinese Government and only about 65 worldwide by the American International Recruitment Council, according to an article reproduced by CNN Money. Many students in China pay consultants or agents over $10,000 to get through the admissions process, says the Boston Globe.
The Beijing Overseas Study Service Association (BOSSA), a government-affiliated agency set up in 2004 to standardize education agencies, has set up an authentication center to verify transcripts and a system to certify education agents along with the China Overseas Study Service Alliance.
The Boston Globe quoted a BOSSA spokesman as saying that the onus, however, is on US universities to take steps to curb admissions malpractice. They should conduct themselves as educational institutions and not as businesses, and should stop seeing Chinese students as just a source of funds.
Why do cheats cheat? A 2010 report by Zinch China, an online social networking and research agency, quoted in Forbes, says Chinese applicants are known to cheat in five areas: recommendation letters, essays, high-school transcripts, financial aid applications, and awards.
According to the Forbes article, the “cheating ecosystem” is nurtured by hypercompetitive parents, aggressive agents, desperate students, an education system that depends on test preps, memorization, and lack of opportunities to develop creativity. US universities that focus more on developing methods to increase their revenue than on maintaining their integrity are also to blame.
The victims in the admissions scam are not just US universities or students with merit who are robbed of admission to colleges, but also hard-working Chinese students, who feel stigmatized. Says one student in Beijing:
Maybe I can cheat and go to Harvard or MIT, but it doesn’t work. I will get kicked out in two years. Most students realize that and study hard.
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