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Prosecutors Broaden SAT Cheating Ring Investigation

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Also in New York, on Long Island, investigators are widening their probe of SAT cheating rings. They've already arrested six students. Authorities say those students paid thousands of dollars to have an impersonator take the SAT for them.

More arrests are pending, and as Charles Lane of member station WSHU reports, the students aren't the only ones facing hard questions. Investigators are also questioning the company that oversees the SAT.

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CHARLES LANE, BYLINE: This part of Long Island is known as the Gold Coast. It's a 20-minute train ride from Manhattan, where Heather Lieber(ph) studies at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Her former schoolmates at Great Neck North High School are accused of hiring people to take their SAT. To Lieber and others here, money and pressure to get into top colleges created the atmosphere for cheating.

HEATHER LIEBER: That is something in - especially this Great Neck community, they're expected to continue to get the wealth that they grew up with.

LANE: Prosecutors allege that a loose network of kids created a market of different test-takers to forge school IDs; go to testing sites outside of Great Neck. where they wouldn't be recognized by proctors; and score well for other students. Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice says 19-year-old Samuel Eshaghoff got up to $2,000 to score in the test's top 3 percent. Towards the end, Eshaghoff started to get bold.

KATHLEEN RICE: So he actually showed up at one of the offsite test sites and impersonated a girl, and was able to do that without a proctor noticing.

LANE: Eshaghoff is pleading not guilty, and contends criminal charges are inappropriate. Rice says the cheating went on for a year before school administrators heard rumors and started comparing GPAs to test scores. After handwriting samples suggested one person took a number of tests, they brought the information to Rice.

RICE: This is not an isolated incident. So our investigation is continuing, and it's my belief that we are going to show that this was far more systemic.

LANE: But administrators of the SAT disagree.

TOM EWING: Cases of impersonation are so rare as to be unique.

LANE: Tom Ewing is spokesman for Educational Testing Services, the nonprofit that administers the SAT. He's been working hard to downplay impersonations as rare. Local and private investigators doubt this claim but still, Ewing calls the SAT security world class.

EWING: That's able to detect as many test security issues as possible without putting undue burden on the 99.9 percent of students who test honestly.

LANE: It's another nonprofit, the College Board, that actually owns the SAT. It's an association of 5,000 colleges and universities that contract ETS to administer, score and secure the SAT's integrity. A simple way to halt impersonators is to photograph and fingerprint the student who actually shows up to take the test. ETS does this for one of its tests, the TOEFL, but doesn't for the SAT because the College Board wants the test to be as burden-free as possible for test-takers.

A walk through Great Neck's shopping district reveals a range of emotions over the cheating scandal: embarrassment that the community's elite image has taken a ding, and anger at the national scrutiny. Alexander Rosenberg(ph) had class with several of the accused students.

ALEXANDER ROSENBERG: It's really unfair to the rest of us that others just paid their way for a good grade, while the rest of us had to go to all these classes and study.

LANE: Prosecutors say the SATs are a long way from being secure, and have subpoenaed records to find out how ETS investigates cheating. The College Board is also reviewing ETS procedures, and plans to testify before a hearing in New York later this month. For NPR News, I'm Charles Lane. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Charles is senior reporter focusing on special projects. He has won numerous awards including an IRE award, three SPJ Public Service Awards, a National Murrow, and he was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists.