Between 2015 and 2016, three aspiring graduate students paid a current student to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) exam to help them get into grad school. All four were Chinese nationals, and their scam worked. The test-taker — at the time a student at Hult International Business School in Cambridge, Massachusetts — scored so well, the three were admitted to premier U.S. universities.
But the law caught up to them Thursday (May 4), with federal authorities arresting all four and charging them with conspiracy to defraud the United States, because the students who paid for test scores received student visas after being admitted to their respective universities. All four face up to five years in prison, up to three years of supervised release, and fines of $250,000 — as well as deportation after conviction and serving of sentence.
“Illegal schemes to circumvent the TOEFL exam jeopardize both academic integrity and our country’s student visa program,” William Weinreb, acting U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts, said in a statement. “By effectively purchasing passing scores, (the students) violated the rules and regulations of the exam, taking spots at U.S. colleges and universities that could have gone to others.”
FOUR STUDENTS IDENTIFIED
The TOEFL is recognized by more than 9,000 colleges, universities, and agencies in more than 130 countries. It is required of foreign students by many U.S. universities and used by the U.S. government in issuing F-1 student visas.
The Department of Justice identified the alleged test-taker as Yue Wang, a 25-year-old graduate of the Hult School outside Boston, and the three cheaters as Xiaomeng Cheng, 21, of Arizona State University; Leyi Huang, 21, of Penn State University; and Shikun Zhang, 24, of Northeastern University. Wang was arrested in New Jersey, where she has been employed by Princeton-based DoubleBridge Technologies Inc., and the others were arrested at their respective universities.
According to Wang’s LinkedIn profile, she has been working for DoubleBridge, a small software developer and IT solutions provider, as a project manager for the past seven months since November of 2016. She graduated from Hult in August of last year. Before going to Hult, she had worked in Shanghai for two years and two months as an account coordinator for the MCI Group, an events company. She is originally from Sichuan, China, and went to Mianyang High School and studied at Shanghai Business School. Wang’s Facebook posts portray an upbeat, diminutive and well-assimilated young woman who has used her time in the U.S. to travel to New York, Washington, D.C., Las Vegas and San Francisco as well as to explore Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming and Horseshoe Bend in Arizona. Her Facebook page even includes a photo of the Statue of Liberty.
The case has some twists. According to the charging documents and reports, Zhang, Huang, and Cheng paid Wang about $7,000 take the TOEFL test after they had failed to meet their universities’ minimum scores. Federal agents investigating fraud involving Chinese nationals and admissions exams in the Boston area last year received a tip that a Chinese student was planning to impersonate another Chinese student and sit for the TOEFL test.
The test-taker, identified as “YY” in a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement affidavit, was identified and removed from the testing room by an investigator with Educational Testing Service, the nonprofit that administers the TOEFL. “YY later told federal agents that fellow Hult International Business School student Wang had paid her $100 upfront and promised $800 later to take the TOEFL in place of another student in China,” according to a Voice of America report.
COLD FEET AND UNUSUALLY HIGH SCORES
Wang, according to the affidavit, had been hired to take the test but got cold feet after reading about test-takers being arrested, and instead hired YY.
Wang later admitted to receiving $7,000 for taking the TOEFL on three separate occasions in 2015 and 2016, according to the VOA report. Cheng had taken the test three times in 2014, but each time failed to score the minimum of 61 required by Arizona State University. When Wang took the test for her two years later, however, Wang scored 97, according to the affidavit. That would have put Cheng in the 75th percentile of test takers on the exam which has a maximum score of 120.
Cheng has not admitted to the conspiracy, the affidavit said, but Zhang and Huang have. The four students are due in U.S. District Court in Boston on May 18.
CHEATING BY CHINESE NATIONALS — NOT A NEW STORY
It’s not the first time Chinese students have been caught cheating on exams to get into top U.S. schools. In 2015, 15 Chinese nationals were indicted on charges of conspiring to defraud the nonprofit Educational Testing Service and the College Board by having impostors take the TOEFL, the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), and the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). At least 30 — and reports suggested many more — Chinese nationals were accused of cheating last year at the University of Iowa through the use of essay writers and test takers.
An estimated 8,000 Chinese nationals were expelled from U.S. schools for cheating or extremely poor academic performance, according to a survey by WholeRen Education, a company catering to Chinese students.
Yet U.S. schools, especially business schools, need Chinese students more than ever. According to the Institute of International Education, the number of Chinese students in the U.S. grew by 9% in the 2015-2016 school year, to 135,629 students.
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