Authorities said they have busted an SAT cheating scheme Tuesday at Great Neck North High School in which students paid a recent grad thousands of dollars to assume their identities, take the test and deliver high scores.
Officials identified the bogus test-taker as Sam Eshaghoff of Great Neck. Eshaghoff, 19, was arrested Tuesday and charged with first-degree scheme to defraud, first-degree falsifying business records and second-degree criminal impersonation. He faces four years in prison.
Also arrested Tuesday were six current and former students, all from Great Neck, who officials say hired Eshaghoff. They face misdemeanor charges and a year in jail. The six were younger than 19 when the phony testing took place and prosecutors declined to identify them.
Prosecutors said investigations are under way into whether SAT cheating occurred at other area high schools and whether Eshaghoff took tests for students at other schools.
"These are serious allegations," said Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice. "There's no level playing field when students are paying someone they know will get them a premier score when other kids are doing it the fair way and the honest way."
College and university admissions have become increasingly competitive. High SAT scores -- perfect is 2400 -- are sought after. The lowest score Eshaghoff got for his clients was 2140 and the highest 2220. The average score nationwide last year: 1509.
After graduating in 2010 from Great Neck North, Eshaghoff enrolled as a freshman at the University of Michigan, where he earned university honors after the fall 2010 term. He now attends Emory University.
Prosecutors said he accepted payments of $1,500 to $2,500 to take the SAT and used the cash to pay for his gym membership and other items. He flew home from college at least once to take the test twice in a single weekend, prosecutors said. He took the tests from November 2009 to January of this year, prosecutors said.
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They said he used altered identification cards with the students' names but his photo and once even took the test for a female student.
Eshaghoff pleaded not guilty during his arraignment at First District Court in Hempstead Tuesday. His mother left court without comment. Reporters were barred from the courtroom for the arraignments of the six students. None spoke as they left court, coats draped over their heads.
Four of the six are now at college and two remain at Great Neck North.
Prosecutors said the colleges probably don't know the students cheated. ETS, the nonprofit group that administers the SAT, does not notify colleges or high schools when students are suspected of cheating. Instead, ETS cancels their scores and offers them a refund, a free retest or the opportunity to arbitrate, prosecutors said.
Eshaghoff's lawyer, Matin Emouna of Mineola, questioned the involvement of the district attorney, saying the matter "should have been dealt with administratively within the school."
Kevin Keating, a Garden City attorney who represents one of the students, also questioned prosecutors. "No one condones cheating, but what's next?" he asked. "A taxpayer-funded arrest of the freckle-faced kid who looks over his schoolmate's shoulder?"
Rice condemned the students who paid Eshaghoff, noting how competitive college admissions slots can be. "They could possibly have taken a seat away from a kid who wasn't cheating," she said.
Prosecutors said they first got word of the scam early this year. ETS officials said in March that they were investigating an alleged breach of testing security involving a group of students from Great Neck North.
The students registered to take the test at a different school to reduce the chance of anyone noticing Eshaghoff was taking the test for them, prosecutors said.
Great Neck North administrators identified the six students after comparing the academic performance of those who'd taken the SAT at other schools with their test scores. ETS also began an investigation and prosecutors said they matched the handwriting on all six tests to Eshaghoff's.
Prosecutors said he also took the test for a female student at no charge. The girl's name was either not gender-specific or was foreign and those overseeing the test may not have picked up on the discrepancy, although Eshaghoff did check the "female" box on the test, prosecutors said.
At the school Tuesday afternoon, most students either would not comment or said they were not aware of the SAT test scandal.
"It's the kids, not the school," said Isabel Neman, 17, a senior. "Our school knew it was wrong," and that is why school administrators investigated the students, she said.
Nicole Nicholas, 16, a junior, said she doesn't believe the students cheated.
"There's no official proof," she said. "We didn't hear about it, and the only reason we know about it is because the news crews are here."