A Nick in a Pencil, A Crack in the System

On October 18, 1996, a handsome young man named Sammy Wong walked out of the baggage claim at Los Angeles International Airport. He stepped outside, near the sinister swoop of the airport's architectural mascot, the Proud Bird, and was met by a Mercedes Benz sedan. Wong settled into the back seat, joining two other anxious-looking young men who had also just arrived in Los Angeles. Behind the wheel was a soft-spoken man in his mid-forties named George Kobayashi. Wong had flown to California from New York to utilize the services of Kobayashi's firm, American Test Center. The company advertised itself in Chinese-language newspapers as a preparation service for various graduate school entrance exams. The program was a "crash course," a "unique study method," said the ads. After meeting Wong at the airport, Kobayashi registered his customer at a hotel and then drove him to the American Test Center office in El Monte, a Los Angeles suburb. There, he handed Wong a piece of paper. Wong's name and social security number were printed on the sheet's top. Below Wong's name was printed, "I cheated on the October GMAT. Please cancel my score." Wong signed the bottom.The confession was in case anything went wrong. It is an article of faith in academia that a good entrance exam score can mean the difference between "elite" and "second tier" education, or between a six-figure income and a more pedestrian salary. Capitalizing on these notions is an ever-growing industry, with companies like Kaplan Educational Centers and The Princeton Review offering intensive exam preparation services designed to boost scores. In 1995, 60,000 students signed up for test classes at Kaplan and Princeton Review, shelling out roughly $160 million to those two companies alone. While the tests have been long criticized for class prejudice and racial bias, performance on standardized entrance exams now seems to be increasingly linked to income. In the wildly competitive post-graduate admissions race, anyone who can't afford the best study aids--books, courses, tutors--is simply out of luck.George Kobayashi understood this perfectly. According to a complaint filed by the New York district attorney on October 24, Kobayashi offered a not-so-unique method of improving test scores, one that didn't require notes, workbooks, studying skills or test-taking strategies. Instead, Kobayashi sold something unquestionably more reliable: the answers to the tests themselves. The worried students in Kobayashi's car that day had chosen to bypass the standard test-prep process, one that could take weeks of studying and typically cost hundreds of dollars, with no guarantee of improvement in score. So in early October, when Wong made his first call to American Test Center's 800 number, he told Kobayashi that he would soon be taking the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT)--the standard business school admissions test--and that he needed a score of 650 out of 800, a score within the 92nd percentile. Kobayashi calmly explained that a 650 would cost Wong $6,000. Wong agreed.Cheating on standardized tests is relatively rare, but according to many testing industry experts, it is also absurdly easy. "They'd draw [the answers] on their shirt, jeans, there are a million ways to do it," says Seppy Basili, Director of Pre-College Programs at Kaplan. Still, only one-tenth of one percent of test-takers even try to cheat, according to Educational Testing Service (ETS), the biggest test distributor in the country. ETS administers the GMAT, the GRE, the LSAT and a host of college admissions tests. Those who do cheat usually employ a familiar set of methods. Often, a cheater has first taken the test honestly and gotten a low score, and then, desperate, enlists someone who has done well on the test to impersonate them for a second attempt. It's a simple method, but easy to catch. Like IRS returns, standardized tests are examined by computers using complex algorithms to analyze scores, and referencing them to a large pool of stored data--including past performance. A dramatic change in a score will be flagged for investigation.Prosecutors have not revealed details on Kobayashi's exact techniques. However, it appears he exploited the three-hour time lag between New York and California. Using cell phones and coded pencils, the tests were taken in New York by professional test-takers, the answers called back to California, then transferred to code etched into pencils given to the clients.Testing industry experts speculate that there are several ways to make the pencils useful. Most pencils are hexagonal; they have six separate sides, or planes. Kobayashi likely assigned each plane to a section of the test and then transformed each multiple-choice answer into a code that was lightly etched into the pencil with a sharp object, probably a tack or pushpin. The etched answers would then be readable to the test takers but invisible to the test monitors in the room. While the exact coding method won't be known until the federal trial in New York, expected to begin within the next few months, most experts agree that it can be done by employing a simple code--for example, one dot for an 'A,' two dots for a 'B,' a slight diagonal line for a 'C,' a curve for a 'D.' In some cases, his clients may have concocted their own codes. Before Kobayashi's clients reached the test center, the complaint alleges, test-takers and American Test Center employees were already scratching answers on the pencils. As Kobayashi's clients worked on the first section (the essay questions), Kobayashi and his employees hurried to finish inscribing the multiple-choice answers on the pencils, in code, before the mid-test break. Then the clients would call a cell phone number given to them by Kobayashi and meet someone in a discreet location for the pencil drop-off. When the test-takers went back into the classroom, they would be instructed to set their pencils on the top of the desk, to keep them from rummaging in bags and pockets during the course of the test--ironically, an instruction designed to thwart cheating. Then, with their coded pencils in plain view of the test monitors, they would complete the tests.Testing industry experts say that even a highly organized bi-coastal cheating ring like Kobayashi's accounts for a relatively small number of cases compared to the gaping time-zone window opened up by tests in Hong Kong. There, the standardized ETS tests are offered a full day before those in the continental U.S."The number of people taking the GMAT in Hong Kong is in the tens of thousands," says John Katzman, the founder of the Princeton Review. "So I take the test today out there, I modem back the answers to New York and California. I have hours. And I don't just give answers, I relay content." According to the federal complaint, George Kobayashi picked up Sammy Wong and two other test-takers in his Mercedes at 5 a.m. on the morning of the test and drove them to American Test Center's El Monte office. There, in the morning darkness, several other clients were milling about, waiting to be shuttled to different test centers--a precaution to keep ETS from noticing a spike in scores from any one specific location. People in the parking lot were busily filling out forms and sharpening pencils. The test was three hours away, 8 a.m. Pacific Standard Time. On the east coast, it had already begun.From El Monte, Kobayashi, Wong, and an undetermined number of other clients drove in two cars to Cal State Los Angeles, near downtown. The test was being administered in the university's Martin Luther King Hall. The group parked side-by-side in a part of the large campus where they would not be seen and waited in the cars until Kobayashi's cell phone rang. After a brief phone conversation, Kobayashi announced to Wong and the other prospective students what the essay questions would be. With hours to go before the tests started, Kobayashi's clients had plenty of time to formulate their essays. Later, when Wong sat down with a roomful of business school hopefuls in the Cal State classroom, the essay questions on the test perfectly matched the questions that Kobayashi had given him in the car.After the essay section, the test takers put down their pencils and were allowed to walk outside to stretch and get a drink of water before the multiple choice portion of the test. Wong went to a telephone and dialed a number that Kobayashi had given him. Kobayashi answered and instructed Wong to meet him downstairs. There, Kobayashi presented Wong with several standard No. 2 pencils, each with barely perceptible nicks on each of the six sides. Wong took the pencils, went back upstairs to the classroom and finished the test. Many of ETS's critics charge that the testing company has turned a blind eye to this type of cheating out of sheer laziness. "It's a loophole that they have had for a long time and it's easy to close. It's astounding that they haven't, and it's remarkably arrogant," says Katzman. "If you leave your door open for 10 years straight and someone comes in one day and steals all your stuff, sure, they're a criminal--but you're an idiot." Other critics of the testing system consider test-prep programs such as Katzman's to be themselves a form of low-level cheating, unfair to any student who can't cough up money for prep courses, texts, prep books and other tools. "Parents will spend $700 on a 'legitimate' tutor, and someone else can spend $6,000 on a crook," says Bob Schaeffer, the Public Education Director for FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a Cambridge, Mass. watchdog organization. Schaeffer says it's unfortunate that both schools and students put so much weight on one test, a mere three hours in a student's academic life. "Is it worth $6,000 for a good test score?" asks Schaeffer. "These stupid tests are perceived as being so important that someone would break the law and spend that much cash." With students paying $700 for courses designed to build test-taking skills--"gamesmanship" or "testmanship," as testing gurus calls it--no one is truly surprised that kids will go a step further to get into the choicest schools, he says. "What's going through their heads is, 'If I do this, get through the right college, etc., I'm going to make $60,000 a year.'" says Schaeffer. "It's illegal, but it's an investment. Some business schools might even give them credit for it." Furthermore, with students vigorously pursuing high scores, many end up taking the tests repeatedly. This, of course, means additional money for the testing industry. ETS has doubled its revenue every six years since 1948, one year after the company's founding. In 1976, Forbes described it as "one of the hottest little growth companies in U.S. business." According to Katzman, ETS is now a $350-million company hauling in $30 million a year. But even given these vast resources, it is unlikely that the testing company will invest the funds to stagger or alternate the tests handed out in different time zones, says Schaeffer. While the Kobayashi case has raised questions about the nature of standardized testing and its implementation, the tests will probably remain the measuring stick colleges use to sift through their applicants. This, despite the fact that study after study (notably research by the University of California) shows the tests notoriously underrate college performance of minorities and women, and that profiteering test-prep companies' ability to routinely raise scores on a test--a test designed to be as unalterable as a childhood IQ test--raises questions about the aptitude tests' validity."The tests are part of the problem," Katzman says. "It's easy to fix, and it's cheap to fix. It's corrupting our education system. This monolithic company has a monopoly, and unless someone comes in with a bat, it's not going to change."On the last Saturday in October, one week after the GMAT, Sammy Wong showed up unexpectedly at Kobayashi's office and presented him with a search warrant. Sammy Wong was an undercover postal inspector, and he had come to arrest George Kobayashi.A federal sting on American Test Center and Kobayashi had begun in 1993, when ETS tipped off the United States Postal Inspector to the possibility of a California cheating ring. (The Postal Inspector becomes involved in investigations when there is illegal activity carried out via mail. In this case, Kobayashi was using false addresses for his New York accomplices to register for the tests.) ETS had been investigating a woman's suspiciously improved test score, and upon questioning, the woman told a tale of a highly orchestrated scam. She had read American Test Center's ad, and when she called the 800 number, George Kobayashi arranged a meeting with her at the Sheraton Hotel in Manhattan. At the hotel, he said her target score would cost her $3,000, but if she didn't get the score, there would be no charge. Meeting once more at the Sheraton, Kobayashi told the woman she would be provided with answers written in code on pencils, which she would take into the test with her. He gave her a book of sample GMAT questions and answers and explained to her how the code would work. Following Kobayashi's instructions, she flew to Los Angeles and took the test using Kobayashi's method. As promised, she beat her target score. But ETS noticed her dramatic improvement and soon notified the Inspections Office of the U.S. Postal Service. An investigation began, and eventually a sting was orchestrated to snare the players at American Test Center. Kobayashi claims the man who played the role of Sammy Wong was a postal inspections agent named Samuel Lee. The postal service gathered enough evidence during their operation in Los Angeles to charge Kobayashi with wire and mail fraud. Kobayashi faces a maximum fine of $250,000 and up to 10 years in prison. The postal service estimates the fine would be two times Kobayashi's take from the scam since 1993, when the investigation began. Kobayashi's arrest was reported in several newspapers, even making the front page of the New York Times. A host of Los Angeles-area Japanese newspapers, interested mostly because of Kobayashi's Japanese last name, also followed the case closely. The United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Mary Jo White, announced the bust in a press release soon after Kobayashi's arrest. "This defendant enriched himself by playing on the insecurities of young people at an anxious time in their lives," the release read. Kobayashi spent 18 days in jail.At the arraignment hearing, when bail was being set at $100,000, the prosecutors discovered that no one named George Kobayashi existed. The name was an alias used by a man named Po Chieng Ma, an immigrant from Taiwan.Their angle lost, the Japanese reporters went home. Less than a month after the arrest, Ma--or Kobayashi--agrees to meet me at a Carl's Jr. around the corner from his Arcadia, Calif home. Tucked off a busy suburban thoroughfare, the fast-food stopover is central to a flat, carefully sectioned corner of the city that has recently seen a tremendous influx of Asian immigrants. Here, square '40s bungalows are making way for thickly stuccoed condos, and huge mansions filled with cut glass and chandeliers muscle their way onto tiny lots. In the parking lot, a shiny black Mercedes pulls up and hesitates. I sit down at a booth inside. The car parks, and soon two men walk past the "order here" and "pick-up" counters, past the salad bar, and slide into my booth. One is Ma. He introduces his friend as "Po." Ma says he is speaking to me with the full knowledge that he probably shouldn't, and against the wishes of both his lawyer and his wife. He asks to be called George Kobayashi, not Po Chieng Ma. He brushes away a question about his alias. "I have many names," he says casually. (This is not as unusual as it may sound. In many Asian cultures, one can be called by different names by friends and family, and immigrants often Anglicize their names when they come to the U.S.) He doesn't respond when asked if he changed his name when he came to the United States from Taiwan six years ago.A stocky man in a polo shirt and shorts, at first Kobayashi anxiously taps notes into an electronic organizer, probably recording his words. He says that he was dumbfounded when the agent who he had assumed was just another student showed up at his office that Saturday. "So many things are confused," he says. "I was shocked... They will suffer me. Why didn't they warn me? In China, [cheating's] not okay, but it's not so serious." All of Kobayashi's clients were recent Asian immigrants. "Rich people from Taiwan and China," says Ma. Many of them are in the U.S. for a good education, he says. If the students don't get into prestigious colleges, their parents will send them home. "People come to me threatened by their parents; they come to me as their last chance." Ma claims he was helping his customers and downplays the amount of money he made in the three years he was in business. In halting English, he wonders whether he can be prosecuted if he only got paid by "one percent" of his clients. "If they didn't get a good score, and I didn't get money, am I still a criminal?" "What are your options?" asks Katzman. "You look at grades and that's a disaster, they're so random. Recommendations? Every recommendation is good--how can you tell? Essays? Did your mom write it? Interviews are subjective. Tests are a common yardstick. They're cheap and easy." However, the tests are notoriously a poor gauge of what applicants know--especially for the growing percentage of recent immigrants trying to get into graduate school. "The data shows that they under-predict anyone for whom English is a second language since they are extremely fast-paced and depend on rapid-fire responses," says Schaeffer. If the tests do not reliably measure knowledge, what do they measure? "They measure how well you take standardized tests," says Schaeffer.That might explain the motivation for students to use Kobayashi's coded pencils, wealthy kids and adults so anxious to get into a good school that they'd spend thousands of dollars to buy an impressive score. At the time of Kobayashi's arrest, investigators confiscated his contact records, his files and his computer, leaving a potentially large number of clients extremely disquieted about their academic futures. The prosecutors have given no indication as to whether the names of the cheating students will be released to the public or to academic institutions. Most worried are the students who will be applying for enrollment in 1997. However, even Kobayashi's clients who are now in grad school are not free and clear. American Test Center has been functioning since at least 1993, and though those who have graduated will probably be beyond reprimand, anyone currently enrolled whose past cheating would violate their school's honor oath could be expelled. According to the New York District Attorney's Office, unraveling the complexities of the case may take as long as a year, and prosecutors are likely to pursue Kobayashi's east coast test-taking accomplices. In the broad universe of crimes brought before the federal government, cheating cases are usually deemed minor and are rarely tried in criminal court. For the most part, they are viewed by prosecutors as "victimless crimes." Unfortunately for Kobayashi, prosecutors appear to be making an example of him. Kobayashi is amazed by the federal ruckus. "My lawyer keeps saying, 'Where is the victim in all of this?'" he asks. I point out that the victims are other test-takers. He falls silent. "But that's all history," he finally says. "I didn't know it was that serious.""The ETS, if they think their tests are so important, they should use different forms. They're making lots of money. I don't know anything about tests, I'm a businessman. My system was a contingency." I ask him what his system was. "Providing answers," he says, pointblank.

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