Written by Jenny Anderson and Peter Applebome and Originally Published in The New York Times on December 1, 2011
The suspected test takers came from prominent, respected families, some of them in financial distress — among the five facing felony charges were the sons of a well-known lawyer, the president of the local library board and a wealthy philanthropic family.
The youths who are accused of paying them as much as $3,600 to take SAT and ACT tests were largely undistinguished students willing to cut corners to strengthen their modest résumés.
The combination yielded one of the most conspicuous cheating scandals in memory, a telling reflection on the college admissions rat race — and, perhaps, contemporary ethics more broadly. According to prosecutors, principals, parents and teenagers here on Long Island’s Gold Coast, it was common knowledge at some of the nation’s most prestigious high schools that if you had the money, you could find someone with a sharper vocabulary and a surer grasp of geometry to fill in the blanks for you.
One 2011 graduate of Great Neck North, the center of the scandal, matter-of-factly acknowledged having asked his parents whether they would pay to hire an SAT stand-in. “They said, ‘No way,’ ” he recalled one recent afternoon.
People briefed on the investigation said that Samuel Eshaghoff, a 2010 Great Neck North graduate, scored in the 2,100 range (out of 2,400) on his own SATs; he is accused of taking tests for at least 15 people over three years, and the people briefed on the inquiry said he obtained scores for them between 2,170 and 2,220 on the SAT and as high as 33 out of 36 on the ACT.
He was proficient at making fake identification cards, they said, and allowed clients to pay in installments and based on what they could afford.
That two of the people for whom he is accused of taking the tests after showing a fake ID were girls only raises further concerns about testing security.
Mr. Eshaghoff, 19, has pleaded not guilty to the charges of scheming to defraud, criminal impersonation and falsifying business records. Soon after his Sept. 27 arrest on Long Island, Mr. Eshaghoff was arrested in Arizona, and accused of possession and use of drug paraphernalia and having a fake ID, according to the Maricopa County sheriff’s office, though charges were never filed.
In a brief interview this week at Emory University, where he is a sophomore economics major, Mr. Eshaghoff said he had flown home three times to deal with the charges, and was now cramming for exams — his own. “I’m trying to focus on school,” he said. “I’m missing classes. That’s obviously tough.”
In Great Neck, a place where the high-achieving schools are the center of public life, and where high-priced tutors and admissions consultants are routine advantages for the wealthy, educators and parents are mortified that the community’s reputation could be muddied by the SAT scandal. But while it is clear that only a tiny proportion of students at the schools cheated, the scheme came to light only because it was widespread and well known enough that officials at North got wind of it.
“It’s almost like drugs,” said Jill Madenberg, a former guidance counselor at nearby New Hyde Park High School, and now an independent college consultant in Great Neck. “You know it’s out there, but do I want to do it?”
So far, 20 teenagers at five schools in Nassau County — Great Neck North, Great Neck South, Roslyn High School, the North Shore Hebrew Academy and St. Mary’s High School in Manhasset — have been arrested: the five suspected of taking the tests were charged with felonies, while the 15 accused of paying them $500 to $3,600 to do so face misdemeanor charges.
Kathleen M. Rice, the Nassau County district attorney, said that she had evidence against 20 others, but that they could not be pursued because of the two-year statute of limitations regarding misdemeanors, or the absence of testing records.
Of course, cheating on the SAT did not begin last year and is not limited to the North Shore of Long Island. One parent in Roslyn confided that back in the 1960s, his brother took the test for at least two friends, charging $25 and guaranteeing a 1,200 out of 1,600. According to the Educational Testing Service, which administers the exam for the College Board, about 3,000 scores are canceled each year because of suspected cheating, 150 involving impersonation.
But the current scandal is remarkable for the prominence of the community, the commitment of the prosecutors and the decision of the principal who went public despite the risks it posed to his school’s carefully cultivated reputation.
Great Neck, the setting for “The Great Gatsby,” has long defined a certain slice of affluent, education-obsessed suburbia. Recently, it has attracted many Asian-Americans and wealthy Iranian Jews.
Even in today’s hard times, a Porsche Panamera 4-S and Mercedes, Range Rovers and Audis mingled with more plebeian vehicles in the parking lot of Great Neck North.
Bernard Kaplan, the school’s principal, said it was “on par with any private school in the country.” Seniors who earn A’s and B’s get a personal note from him: there are 146 of them stacked on his desk.
When he came to the school in 1993, Mr. Kaplan said, students typically took one Advanced Placement course — now it is often five or six. With that increased intensity has come pressure to cheat — and technologies making it easier to do so. Bringing that to light, he said, has been positive, if painful.
“The right things were done, and people had to pay the consequences,” he said.
Mr. Eshaghoff, whose mother is a lawyer and president of the Great Neck Library Board, became known around Great Neck North for having done well on the SAT and being willing to cheat on that exam as well as school tests — for a price, students and people involved in the investigation said. Prosecutors said he even flew home from college last year to take the SAT for two students in one weekend, exploiting the Sunday proctoring usually reserved for students with religious conflicts.
While prosecutors say they do not believe that Mr. Eshaghoff was running a ring of test-takers, one person briefed on the investigation said that for a fee, he showed at least one other test-taker at another school how to make fake IDs.
Joshua Chefec, a 2009 graduate of Great Neck North who is now a senior studying business at Tulane University in New Orleans, was apparently a more reluctant SAT impersonator. In 2008, said two people briefed on the investigation, Mr. Chefec, a smart and serious student whose parents were divorcing, was offered cash to take the test by a more popular student. Eager to impress, and perhaps get closer to the other student’s friends, he agreed, officials said; later, he scored a 31 on the ACT under the same student’s name.
Mr. Chefec has also pleaded not guilty, and his lawyer, Brian Griffin, said the case should have been handled by the schools, not the courts. “Using pretrial publicity to try and wake up the College Board on the backs of these children is wrong,” he said.
But Ms. Rice, the district attorney, said, “We have to put accountability into the system, and there is none right now.”
“If we can’t teach 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds that cheating is wrong,” she added, “shame on us.”
The others accused of test-taking for money, who have also pleaded not guilty, are Adam Justin, whose father, David, is a former president of a local synagogue and part of a prominent real estate family; George Trane, a Great Neck South graduate who now attends SUNY College at Stony Brook; and Michael Pomerantz, who went to Great Neck North but never graduated.
Ms. Rice said there was no evidence showing parents were aware of the scheme. But Alan Gensler, a parent of a Roslyn High School junior, said he could not “imagine that my child would be able to do that and come up with $1,000 or $2,000 and me not know about it.”
The scheme began to fall apart in late 2010, according to a person briefed on the investigation, after a student confided to a college counselor at Great Neck North that someone was accepting money to take the SAT for other students.
The guidance department and the principal compared SAT scores with student grade-point averages, prosecutors said. Where SAT scores seemed high, they looked at where the tests had been taken and found that some of the widest discrepancies were with those who had opted to take the test off-site, where they would not be recognized. School officials at some point contacted E.T.S., which conducted a handwriting analysis.
The analysis determined in April 2011 that one person had taken multiple tests.
Throughout the spring, according to people involved in the case, a group of Great Neck North students faced hearings with the schools superintendent.
Several people said the students were told that if they admitted having paid others to take exams on their behalf, the matter would stay in the school. When asked about this, however, Mr. Kaplan adamantly said: “We didn’t make any such promise. We have a moral and legal obligation to report any criminal activity beyond the scope of the school to the proper authorities.”
In any case, according to people briefed on the investigation, those who confessed were suspended, forced to retake the SAT, forbidden from attending prom and required to do community service.
Then school officials alerted the authorities, who followed the trail to the other Long Island schools, and had the authority to punish those, like Mr. Eshaghoff, who had already graduated.
Mr. Eshaghoff spent freshman year at the University of Michigan, but transferred — for financial reasons, he said in an interview on Tuesday. “It was an expensive school,” he said. “Emory was better with financial aid.”
He lives on campus in the Phi Delta Theta house, in a cluttered room with a bunk bed, a wooden desk, and posters of musicians including Bob Marley. He said he planned to pledge the fraternity next semester.
The day before Thanksgiving, Mr. Eshaghoff, whose parents are also divorced, was spotted outside Great Neck North, his alma mater, with his father and a television news crew that was filming him.
Officials involved in the investigation said they would not seek jail time for any of those arrested, including Mr. Eshaghoff. Community service is a more likely outcome — perhaps tutoring poor students for the SAT.