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The Perfect Score: Cheating on the SAT

The Perfect Score: Cheating on the SAT 14:04

For Sam Eshaghoff, getting a high score on the SAT college admissions exam was more than a point of pride. It was a lucrative business. As Alison Stewart reports, other students paid Eshaghoff up to $2,500 each to take their tests using easily manufactured fake IDs. His scam came crashing down in fall 2011, when he was arrested for criminal impersonation and fraud. Eshaghoff has since accepted a plea deal, but the case still raises major questions about the integrity of the test itself.

The following script is from "The Perfect Score" which aired on Jan. 1, 2012. Alison Stewart is the correspondent. Katherine Davis, producer.

This past September, a 19-year-old college student named Sam Eshaghoff made national news when he was arrested and charged with fraud and criminal impersonation. His crime was taking the SAT and ACT tests for other people. He was so good at it other students paid him thousands of dollars to take the exams for them.

The district attorney who charged him says Sam Eshaghoff was able to take the SATs at least 16 times which has raised questions about the integrity and security surrounding one of the most important tests millions of high school students ever take.

Tonight, for the first time, Sam Eshaghoff tells us how and why he did it.

Sam Eshaghoff: I thought that there was an easy way to make money. And just like any other easy way to make money, it's always too good to be true.

Alison Stewart: Who told you you were in trouble?

Eshaghoff: My parents got a phone call saying that there was a warrant for my arrest, which was scary and shameful. I felt like my world was going to come crashing down.

Until he was arrested in September, Sam Eshaghoff seemed like the perfect kid. At New York's Great Neck North High School, he was a top student, vice president of the business club and a varsity athlete, but what may have been his greatest talent was the one that got him in trouble: his ability to ace standardized tests, which was how he began a double life as a con man.

Kathleen Rice: I would call him an academic gun for hire. That's what he was.

Stewart: People just needed him to get a job done and he got it done.

Rice: And he was the man.

Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice filed criminal charges against Eshaghoff and the students who hired him.

Rice: This was a huge fraud from my perspective. This was lots of money changing hands, there were high stakes involved, and there was forgery, there was criminal impersonation. That's a fraud. That's a fraud on many different levels, but most importantly against the kids who play by the rules.

Stewart: During the course of your investigation, what did you discover about the process of taking the SAT and the security associated with taking an SAT test?

Rice: How incredibly easy it is to cheat the system. There is absolutely no security in place whatsoever to prevent criminal impersonation like we see here from happening.

Stewart: So if I went up to any of those kids and I say, "Do you know what this guy did?", they'd all know?

Eshaghoff: Every single person would know who I am and what I do.

Eshaghoff says paid test takers were an open secret among students at Great Neck North. He became the best known, but he says he was not the first.

Eshaghoff: I had heard of it happening successfully in my own high school.

Stewart: So tell me about taking the mental leap from "well, I heard other kids doing it" to "I think I'm going to do this."

Eshaghoff: Well, it all started with some kid approaching me. He's like, "Yo, you're good on your SATs and I'm not. And you know this is possible so how much is it gonna take?"

Here's how he did it: it was as simple as making a high school ID; one of six forms of identification accepted at SAT testing centers.

Eshaghoff: A school ID is what? Like what is that? It's like, it's some colors with literally a name and picture on it. So what I would do is, I took the template from my high school ID, pasted my picture on top of it, and whatever person's name whose test I was taking, I would have their name and date of birth on it. And it was really as easy as that.

Stewart: No social security number?

Eshaghoff: No.

Stewart: No driver's license, no passport?

Eshaghoff: Name and date of birth.

Stewart: On a little piece of plastic?

Eshaghoff: On a little piece of plastic that got laminated once.

Fake ID in hand, and with a bad case of nerves, Eshaghoff began his lucrative career.

Eshaghoff: As soon as I took that first test, and I went in and I killed it, like my first time ever taking the test for somebody else, I got a perfect score on the math section. It was like, "Whoa, that was easy and that was great. And I'm good at this."

It was clockwork from there. Over the course of nearly three years, he took the SAT over and over again, consistently scoring in the 97th percentile or higher for the students he called his "clients."

Eshaghoff: I mean my track record speaks for itself. Like if you know somebody's so stellar at doing something so flawlessly, without one exception it goes without saying: that's a reliable service.

Stewart: Were you invested at all in the score you would get?

Eshaghoff: Oh yeah, absolutely. Just like any other business person, you wanna have a good track record, right? And essentially like my whole clientele were based on word of mouth and like a referral system. So as soon as I, like, as soon as I saved one kid's life...

Stewart: Saving his life?

Eshaghoff: Saving his life.

Steart: What do you mean by saving his life?

Eshaghoff: 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 like, a 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 in life.

Stewart: But isn't he going to take the place of someone who may have actually worked for it and deserved that position?

Eshaghoff: You know, I hear that but I don't care for a complaint like that. That one kid that I helped get into whatever school, he really wasn't displacing anybody.

Stewart: You sound like you wanna defend their right to be in these schools?

Eshaghoff: I feel confident defending the fact that they, getting into the schools that they ended up getting into, didn't really affect other people.

Stewart: But it's possible?

Eshaghoff: It's possible.

If that sounds outrageous, it's because his high scores and his client's money trumped right and wrong. At the height of his business, Eshaghoff was able to charge as much as $2,500 per test. One very satisfied customer gave him a $1,100 tip.

Eshaghoff: A lot of times I would even induce a bidding war between two potential clients and have them fight against each other for who was going to pay me more.

He didn't stop after he left for college. He just added the cost of flying back home to his fee.

Stewart: The big question for me comes back to: where are kids getting this money to give you? Because we're talking about thousands of dollars and then if you add airfare...Do you know where they were getting the money?

Eshaghoff: I mean I can't imagine that a high school kid would be able to get this kind of money on his own, like from working or something. I don't know. Maybe it came from their parents. I mean, I wasn't really gonna ask them, "Okay, so where are you getting the money from?" But come on, let's put two and two together.

Stewart: I've read this, but I want to hear it from you. You took the SAT for girls?

Eshaghoff: Correct.

Stewart: How do you take the SAT for girls?

Eshaghoff: Like if the girl has a foreign name that could be perceived as unisex, like a girl could be named Alex. But if she needs me to go and take her SATs under the name Alex whatever, it's easy as that.

Stewart: Did you ever take the SAT twice in one weekend?

Eshaghoff: I have done that.

Eshaghoff exploited accommodations that the Educational Testing Service provides to make the test accessible to everyone. That's why a high school ID is an acceptable form of identification. Also, students can take the test at any of the 6,000 testing centers nationwide. So Eshaghoff would choose centers where he knew he wouldn't be recognized.

Stewart: Describe the security for me when you as a student show up to take the SAT?

Eshaghoff: When I go to take the SAT, it's as easy as going in, keeping your head down, giving the proctor the flash of the ID which is all they need, they just need to match the name on the ID to the name on their roster, and then it's find your seat, don't make noise, don't cause trouble. Do what you gotta do and get out.

Stewart: Who were the proctors? Do you know who the proctors were at these tests?

Eshaghoff: I realized that the proctors were just like junior faculty members and like cafeteria aides and like staff that really had no business proctoring a test.

Stewart: So you didn't feel like you had to go past a security gauntlet?

Eshaghoff: Oh not at all, I mean, no, no security gauntlet. I mean, how hard would it be to trick a cafeteria aide into letting you sit in that seat?

Stewart: Is it easy to cheat on the SAT?

Kurt Landgraf: No, I don't believe it is.

Kurt Landgraf is president of the Educational Testing Service, which administers the test for the College Board and is responsible for SAT test security.

Landgraf: This is not a common occurrence.

Stewart: How many impersonations did ETS discover last year?

Landgraf: About 150.

Stewart: But in reality that's the 150 you know about, that doesn't mean there were only 150 impersonations?

Landgraf: Absolutely.

Landgraf says, according to their data, of the three million students who take the SAT every year, more than 99 percent do so honestly. His organization spends $11 million on SAT test security annually.

Stewart: Do you know how many times Sam Eshaghoff took the SAT?

Landgraf: Actually, I don't.

Stewart: Sixteen times. Does that surprise you?

Landgraf: No.

Stewart: That he was able to get by your proctors 16 times?

Landgraf: Well, if he had an ID with his picture on it and a name and the registration document had that name on it, he could get in, sure. No, unfortunately it doesn't surprise me.

Stewart: Does it concern you about the integrity of your test? If one teenage kid can do that 16 times and that's all that we know about, from him alone?

Landgraf: Yeah, so the integrity of the test, the validity of the test score is the primary concern of ETS and the College Board. Since I believe that almost all the students take the test honestly, with integrity, and the score is valid, it's very important that we not overreact to this case or any future cases. And do things that would be onerous and detrimental to the actual long term security or access for the administration.

Rice: Sam Eshaghoff is a smart kid. But you don't have to be a brainiac to cheat the system the way it exists at this present time. There's absolutely no security procedure in place. Any review is done after the fact. Which prevents any level of accountability once cheaters are caught. And that system has to change.

[District attorney press conference: We now know that the security vulnerabilities we exposed in September are a systemic problem.]

Since Eshaghoff's arrest, the investigation has grown. More than 50 students have been implicated in what District Attorney Rice calls well-run cheating operations in four different New York counties. Rice says she discovered a sophisticated system of brokers who would match buyers and sellers based on their ability to pay and their ability to score.

Rice: We know there are students who met with someone who acted as a middleman who said, 'Tell me what you want. Tell me what you need. How much money do you have? Ok, I'll set up the test-taker. And they'll take the test for you.' I mean, this is big business. And it didn't just start in 2011. This has been going on, this criminal impersonation has been going on for years. Decades. All across the country.

Sam Eshaghoff was caught after several of his clients, students with suspiciously high scores, were questioned and confessed.

Six weeks ago, Eshaghoff's legal team accepted a plea deal which includes community service: tutoring low-income students on how to take the SAT.

Stewart: Was there ever a point when you were taking these tests that you had a conversation with yourself that went like this: 'Sam, I know I'm doing the wrong thing, I'm lying here. This is not right. I gotta stop this.' Did you ever have that conversation with yourself?

Eshaghoff: Yeah I did. It was tough. I knew I was doing the wrong thing. I fully acknowledge that this was the wrong move. And I gotta stop this. But I was low on cash and I just told myself, "One last time, one last time, one last time..."

Stewart: You feel bad about what you did?

Eshaghoff: If I could start over, I never would have done it.

Eshaghoff is back at college now and if you're wondering what happened to the kids he helped get into school, their colleges will never be notified about what they did. Because it is ETS policy not to tell schools about cases of suspected or confirmed cheating.

Rice: We know there are kids in college right now who got where they are because of tests that someone else took and there's nothing that we can do about it. If that doesn't tell you that the system has to change, I don't know what does.

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