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How some high school students from California improved their SAT scores

Cheating on SATs

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It was espionage of the most sophisticated kind. The principal field agent, a handsome and educated young professional, jetted around the western hemisphere using aliases and forged identification. His mission: To steal classified data from a powerful global organization that ruled the fate of millions. Working against the clock, he bluffed his way past security personnel, obtained the secret information and transmitted it to his controller in Los Angeles, where a staff of ten enciphered and smuggled it to clients who had paid large sums of cash. On all levels, secrecy was essential and enforced with a very credible threat of violence. 

CIA? KGB? No, SAT. The participants in this intelligence operation were, for the most part, teenagers, and the data they stole were not secrets of state or blueprints for plutonium triggers but answers to the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and Achievement Tests (ACH) — the standardized tests taken by 2 million students every year. Branded a “nefarious scheme” by a federal judge, it was probably the most spectacular college-entrance cheating scam yet uncovered. The ring operated for at least a year and, according to the Educational Testing Service (ETS), not only “undermined the integrity” of the tests but reaped tens of thousands of dollars in profits.

Paul KRC, a popular young tutor for the Princeton Review, wrapped up his SAT prep course in mid-October 1989. His students, mostly upper-middle-class kids from West Los Angeles, had two weeks to review for the November 4th exam, which would largely determine their academic future. Though Krc (pronounced kirk) had already taken the test nine times, he would take it again on the fourth. It was not a gesture of solidarity.

At 8:30 a.m. on exam day, carrying a large duffel bag and a Walkman tape recorder, Krc surfaced 3000 miles from home at a testing center in Tampa, Florida, amid a crowd of nervous adolescents. Dressed down, his shoulder-length brown hair parted in the middle, he looked slightly younger than his thirty-one years. Like the others, Krc handed over his admission ticket and displayed a picture ID. Then he did something unusual. Just before the exam started, Krc approached an ETS proctor and asked extensive questions about the pattern and duration of test breaks. The proctor explained but later made note of the peculiar inquiry and reported it to ETS.

Krc, like all Princeton Review tutors, was extremely good at the tests he coached. While the students around him struggled, Krc breezed through the six sections. To appear inconspicuous, he too penciled in the tiny bubbles on his answer sheet. But he did so infrequently, and the marks he put down were random. Meanwhile, Krc surreptitiously recorded the real answers, as he had done many times before, on his shirt sleeve, an eraser and a handkerchief. Twice he took unscheduled breaks. The exam ended at noon.

Across the continent in California it was 9:00 a.m.; nervous high-school students had just taken their seats and sharpened their No. 2 pencils. Krc walked out of the Florida exam room to the nearest public telephone, dialed a long-distance number and spoke for twenty minutes. On the other end of the line, in Santa Monica, California, Steven Su, then a seventeen-year-old junior at Santa Monica High School, listened and wrote. Su is a dapper, confident young man of Asian descent who inspires fear in some of his former schoolmates. Though much younger, Su ran the operation. His headquarters on exam days was a million-dollar home owned by the parents of a cohort.

As Krc spoke, Su took notes, scrupulously recording the answer key to the November 1989 SAT. Aided by staff, Su then encoded the data onto small pieces of paper, which were ingeniously concealed. Sometimes the ring used the paper bands that are used to wrap pencil erasers. The staff slid off the covers, shaved down the erasers, taped on the crib sheets and slid the covers back on. The coding identified which set of answers belonged with which section of the exam. “For example, 40V — that would indicate the verbal section with forty questions,” says a witness.

Erasers readied, staff members ran to their cars and fanned out to test sites around West Los Angeles, including UCLA and University High School. Now, the timing was critical. During the scheduled breaks, customers waited at prearranged locations for the handoffs and then smuggled the erasers into the exam. After unwrapping them, they laid the coded strips in the margins of their test books and went to work filling in their answer sheets. But they were given an important caveat: Krc’s responses were nearly perfect. To avoid scores so high they would attract attention, customers were told to skip some questions and to mark some incorrectly. It was a rule destined to be broken.

By the end of 1989 the operation had been executed successfully at least six times, and it was getting routine. Distribution was growing, and the money was fabulous. Su charged between $500 and $2000 per crib sheet, the range reflecting a policy of volume discount: If a student brought other students into the scheme, each of them received a discount.

Several weeks after the November SAT, Krc again showed up in Tampa, preregistered for the December 2nd Achievement Tests. But ETS had read the proctor’s irregularity report about Krc’s strange behavior during the previous test. The company had become so suspicious that it sent to Tampa Albert J. Brown, a test-security specialist, to observe Krc’s every move. Krc was up to his usual tricks, and when Brown confronted him, he left the test site immediately.

Realizing he was now under surveillance, Krc developed an elaborate technique of evasion. He began “a pattern of test-site switching: registering for one site and appearing to take the test at another,” according to Brown. He also started to use a false identity, and eventually the ruse escalated into an international game of cat and mouse. ETS records show that between March 1988 and June 1991, Krc took the SAT and Achievement Tests at least twenty-one times, twice under a pseudonym, in places including Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Michigan and Bermuda. Once, he went all the way to London, where he took two tests in the span of a few weeks.

In January 1991, Krc arrived as “Mitchell Levic” for an SAT at Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Indiana. He presented a Colorado money order, an Illinois address and, inexplicably, a UCLA identification card. Already on the lookout, ETS personnel summoned him from the exam room to talk in the hall. Instead of panicking, Krc fired back questions at his interrogators, confused them with erratic behavior, grabbed the whole exam booklet and fled, proctors in pursuit. Krc escaped.

The incident was a clear signal that the operation had become precarious, but Su and Krc ignored the warning signs. Finally, the inevitable happened. Lured by the prospect of stratospheric SATs, a few students defied Su’s order to regulate their answers. Last spring, high-school administrators noticed the incongruous scores, linked them to a rumor about a time-zone cheating ring run by a group of kids at their school known as the Asian Mafia and phoned ETS. The operation was blown, and the company is suing Krc and Su in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles for more than $100,000. If found guilty of the allegations made against them in this civil action, Su and Krc could be charged with serious state and federal crimes ranging from wire fraud to extortion.

The defendants, who refused to be interviewed for this article, have not bothered to show up for preliminary court appearances, and ETS lawyers hope to win by default. Yet sources close to the case say that despite the lawsuit, there is a disturbing quantity of unfinished business. ETS alleged originally that Su and Krc used the time-zone cheating method on three exams, that answers were provided to over forty students and that Krc had “been paid approximately $10,000 for each test.” But the estimates have since changed. During an unsworn interview, Krc admitted to using the time-zone method on thirteen occasions, and ETS now says it has no idea how many customers bought his answers.

The SAT and achievement tests are sponsored by the College Entrance Examination Board, a nonprofit association representing the interests of colleges and universities. ETS develops and administers the tests under contract. The SAT, the larger exam by far, is given each year to approximately 1.7 million high-school students at more than 4000 sites in the United States and 125 foreign countries.

Though designed for prospective college applicants, the test is open to anyone who wants to take it, and coaches who work for companies like the Princeton Review sit for it regularly. The purpose of the SAT is to measure math and verbal skills relevant to academic success in college; each of the two general areas is scored on a 200- to 800-point scale, a perfect combined score being 1600. Results are used to predict the grade-point average a test taker will earn during his or her freshman year, and often play a decisive role in the admission process.

It’s no wonder cheating goes on. The SAT, the single most important test in secondary education, is widely perceived by adolescents to be unfair. “I think the SAT is a bunch of BS,” a college student says bitterly. “Trying to judge your whole learning experience from first grade all the way up to senior year on one test — it really doesn’t reflect how much you’ve learned. It’s a test of who can beat the system better.”

While educators wrangle over whether the test is racially, sexually or culturally biased, one thing is clear: Upper-middle-class kids do better on it. According to the College Board itself, average SAT scores rise steadily with wealth — from 768, among students whose families have incomes of less than $10,000, to 997 for students whose families have incomes of $70,000 or more. Many factors contribute to the bias, but the ability to afford expensive coaching can make all the difference.

The Princeton Review claims to run the most effective SAT course in the country. The L.A. franchise charges $645 for a six-week class and says students raise their scores an average of 150 points. Unlike Stanley Kaplan, another large coaching firm, the Princeton Review is critical of standardized tests, considers itself an advocate of student rights and cultivates an irreverent image. Some tutors take that attitude too far.

Paul Krc worked for the Princeton Review’s Los Angeles franchise for four years. He was fired the day ETS’s lawsuit was picked up by the media and allegations were made public that he led a clandestine existence as an industrial spy. What made the situation a little weird is that Krc is a lawyer — a graduate of the University of Wisconsin Law School and a member of that state’s bar association. But the legal life apparently held little appeal for him.

Krc’s former colleagues say he was gregarious, well liked and good at his job. They also say he has unusual priorities. “He lived like a pauper,” says Kevin Drexel of the Princeton Review, who estimates that Krc’s annual wages from the franchise were less than $20,000. Drexel says Krc lived in Los Angeles for a long time without a car, getting around instead on a broken-down bike. “We certainly didn’t know anything about any traveling,” says Drexel. Krc didn’t practice law, because he preferred a laid-back schedule. “He was a big movie buff. He could work here teaching and live the Southern California lifestyle, go to movies during the day and kind of be lazy.”

The job had other advantages, too. “All of our teachers have at times been approached seriously to take the test for students,” Drexel says. “You know: ‘My parents would pay such and such to get me a good score.’ Most offers are between $1000 and $3000 for the SAT and, for graduate tests [like the Graduate Record Exam], between $3000 and $10,000.” They have gone as high as $25,000, says Drexel. But what happens to tutors who succumb to temptation? “They’re fired,” says Drexel. “It’s that simple.”

Oddly, Krc doesn’t seem to have been in it for the cash. “The motivation on Su’s part we infer to be monetary,” says ETS general counsel Stanford von Mayrhauser. “The motivation on Krc’s part is harder to divine, given his age and the description of his life’s activities. This does not seem to be making him a particularly wealthy man.” But judging from his actions, it was fun. Krc told ETS lawyers that after receiving a letter in April 1990 informing him of the company’s suspicions and demanding an explanation, he pulled off the cheating scam five more times. An ETS lawyer who met him says that Krc “may have viewed the letter as a challenge.” Krc approached his avocation with a bold sense of humor. Once during an exam, in a display of pure chutzpah, Krc asked a hall proctor if he looked suspicious.

Though little more than half Krc’s age, Steven Su was much more ambitious. “Su was the organizer, the recruiter,” von Mayrhauser says. “He advertised the services, received the money and delivered the answers.” Su is currently a student at Santa Monica City College. He lives in a modest apartment building two miles from the beach. But he is not an average teenager. Students who know Su don’t want to talk about him. If they speak at all, they insist on anonymity. Su was part of a “scandalous little group” that was into “black-market stuff, ” says a former schoolmate. “They’re all Asian, and they’re just badasses. If they found out I was the one who was saying this shit, I could seriously get hurt.” ETS shares the students’ concern. The company alleged in federal court that Su “has made threats of physical violence against students to discourage them from cooperating with ETS’ investigation.” ETS also sought an order to stop Su or his agents from carrying out the threats.

“This isn’t kids cheating anymore,” says Michael Josephson, who has studied the ethics of American students. “This is organized crime entering into the academic world at the earliest stage to create lifelong criminal mentalities. The fact that these people aren’t selling drugs makes them no less dangerous.”

Considering the seriousness of the scandal, critics say there is an inexplicable reluctance on the part of ETS, the College Board and high-school officials to face the problem. Nearly a year has gone by since ETS was first tipped to the scam, and still the company does not know its full extent, does not know whether others continue to operate the ring and has no immediate plans for preventing time-zone cheating in the future. Neither Krc nor Su has been indicted, and most of the students who cheated their way into college are still there.

The Los Angeles-area private high school that discovered the cheating ring has discreetly expelled several students but otherwise hushed up the affair. So has Santa Monica High School, alma mater of Steven Su and, according to a well-informed graduate, more than a hundred students who purchased scores over the course of several years. The school’s principal would make only one comment, its implications chilling: “Kids are always looking for an advantage, so cheating goes on everywhere. I don’t think it’s specific to this area.”

Critics of the test say the scandal should teach an important lesson, not only about the unreliability of standardized exams, often touted as more secure than other components of applicants’ dossiers, but also about their destructive impact. “It’s one more example of how one three-hour test on a Saturday morning is a lot easier to scam than a grade-point average,” says Sarah Stockwell of the nonprofit student-advocacy group Fair Test.

The students I spoke to say that organized academic fraud is on the rise and apparently beyond the knowledge or control of authorities. Most of these students seem to know at least one person who cheated on the SAT, and the variety and ingenuity of their methods is astounding — from the buddy system, in which friends swap answers during breaks, to the surrogate approach to the use of wristwatch-size data banks that can store vocabulary words and formulas. Says one college freshman: “It’s easier to cheat on the SAT than to get a six-pack of beer.”

After talking to dozens of high-school seniors and college freshmen, I found that there are many reasons for the phenomenon — overemphasis by colleges on SAT scores, shifting ethical values and technology that makes possible new kinds of cheating — but the fundamental reason seems to be increasing pressure to get into prestigious colleges. “I can’t remember a day in the last five months I wasn’t asked what colleges I applied to and where I got in, said a high-school senior last spring. “It’s ridiculous. I don’t know what went on in past years, but I’d have a hard time believing it was anything like this.” The kids call it the Harvard-or-die syndrome — a belief that getting into a top college is more important than even their own integrity.

“It disturbs me a great deal,” says USC dean of admissions Cliff Sjogren. “Graduating from a prestige university may help get the first job, but after that a student is going to be judged on how he or she performs.” Cheating only interferes with finding a college that’s a good fit, and in the long run, the fit is most important. “We really want students to be in a comfortable academic environment so that they go out there with confidence.” In the working world, Sjogren says, “nobody really cares about where they graduated from.” Or for that matter, what they scored on the SAT.

Of course, the world looks quite different from the perspective of a high-school student. “I think the reality is that kids are looking for any way they can to make themselves appear to be the best candidate for admission,” says Rae Lee Siporin, director of undergraduate admissions at UCLA. “And as long as some can afford to buy their way in, they’re going to use any device that they can find.”

Because of that, ETS spends a small fortune in a war against cheating. Though the company has its own legal department, it hired two prestigious law firms, one in Washington and one in Los Angeles, to prosecute the case against Su and Krc. After getting a court order to halt the pair’s activities, the legal team’s top priority was to uncover all details of the operation so ETS could try to prevent time-zone cheating in the future.

The repository of that information was Steven Su, who arrived for his deposition with the ETS legal team with a lawyer of his own. In response to every substantive question, Su followed the advice of his counsel — he invoked his Fifth Amendment right against compulsory self-incrimination and refused to answer. He did, however, agree to answer a few peripheral questions. About his plans for the future, Su testified that he intended to enroll at UC Berkeley, which has accepted him for the spring semester. Krc’s plans are unknown. Should he ever want to practice law, he is still a member in good standing of the Wisconsin Bar Association. His license is currently dormant, but the bar said that for a fifty-dollar fee it could be reactivated.

The time-zone cheating ring was, according to a Santa Monica High graduate, only one of three at his school supplying test answers. “If someone wanted to,” he says, “I could still get hold of answers for the upcoming SATs.”

In This Article: Coverwall

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