Teens charged with felonies for cheating on SATs

Photo Courtesy of http://jbhs.org/

Shayna Gersten, Staff Writer

Through rumors overheard in school hallways, principals at several suburban high schools in New York began to suspect that their students had cheated on the SAT and ACT college entrance exams last spring. Three of the schools were public, but one was a Modern Orthodox high school, North Shore Hebrew Academy, in Great Neck, Long Island.

In all, 40 current or former students are now being investigated by Nassau County prosecutors for cheating at the schools. Twenty of them, from five schools – Great Neck North, Great Neck South, Roslyn High School, North Shore Hebrew Academy, and St. Mary’s High School – are already facing felony charges of fraud that could result in prison time.

According to The New York Times, the accused are alleged to have paid or been paid as much as $3,600 to have one student impersonate another and take the SAT or ACT exam in their place.

After their suspicions were raised, the principals looked for and found drastic differences between certain students’ grades and SAT scores, whereupon they contacted the Educational Testing Service (ETS) to do a comparison of their handwriting with that which appeared on the tests.

Although identification is required for the tests, students had prepared false IDs, prosecutors charge. In some cases, boys allegedly took the test for girls, raising the question of whether the security measures for the exams are too lax.

“The security is very strong,” said senior Justin Brandt-Sarif, who has taken the SAT three times, “but there are major holes in it.”

At least three of the accused are Jewish.  Among them is North Shore Hebrew Academy graduate, 19-year-old Adam Justin, whose father is former president of an area synagogue, according to The New York Times. Adam Justin has pleaded not guilty.  Two other North Shore suspects are under 18 years of age and therefore have not been publicly named. They were accused of paying to have the test taken for them, the Times said.

Rabbi Stuart Grant, principal of North Shore, was reached by The Boiling Point and did not want to be interviewed.  But Shalhevet Judaic Studies teacher Rabbi Ari Schwarzberg applauded the principals’ actions.

“It’s [their] obligation to report the students,” Rabbi Schwarzberg said.  “We don’t accept violations of moral law and there is no room for any action that could violate that law.”

He said it can sometimes be permissible under Halacha (Jewish law) to protect Jews from outside authorities, but that would not apply in this case.

“Halachic problems apply only where Jews are being harmed or mistreated,” Rabbi Schwarzberg said.

In one case, Great Neck North graduate Samuel Eshaghoff stands accused of taking the exams for 15 people over the course of three years. Students who allegedly paid him to sit in for them received SAT scores between 2170 and 2220 and upwards of 33 out of 36 on the ACT exams, according to media reports. Mr. Eshaghoff has pleaded not guilty.

All five college students alleged to have received payment to take the tests were charged with felonies, which will be put onto their permanent records if they are convicted. The 15 high school students accused of paying others to take their tests for them face only misdemeanor charges and will be forced to work community service hours.

If convicted, even though they cheated on one of the most important tests according to colleges, the students will have their false scores erased, will be fully reimbursed, and will be permitted to take the test again. However, according to the New York Times, those who confessed, were also suspended and forbidden to go to prom.

Moreover, for legal reasons their names will not be sent out to colleges. Shalhevet college counselor Dr. Mercer found this surprising.

“I agree with the value that colleges have on the importance of academic integrity and the honor code,” Dr. Mercer said. “I think that the consequences should be really rigid. If you’re caught cheating or breaking academic integrity, the consequences can be more dire than any other breach.”

Dr. Mercer even said that in one instance at a previous college he worked at, they accepted a student with a criminal record over one who had been caught cheating. That’s how serious colleges take cheating.

“If you don’t tell the truth about something academic, that’s it,” he said, “ You’re done in the world of colleges.”

Some of the accused high school students said they cheated because of the pressure of grades and getting accepted to a good college.  That pressure, at least, is understood by some Shalhevet students.

“The SATs are very important,” said junior Esther Levy, “especially to colleges. If I don’t take it seriously enough and fail, I’ll feel like I failed in life.”