One of the four students, Yue Wang, who was studying at Hult International Business School, was charged for taking the TOEFL exam for three other Chinese students to help them gain admission to US universities in 2015 and 2016.
Shikun Zhang, 24, a student at Northeastern University in Boston, Leyi Huang, 21, of Penn State University and Xiaomeng Cheng, 21, studying at Arizona State University, are alleged to have paid Wang $7,000 to sit the English language exam for them.
“Illegal schemes to circumvent the TOEFL exam jeopardise both academic integrity and our country’s student visa program”
All four of the students were issued an F-1 student visa based on their admittance to the universities.
William B. Weinreb, acting US attorney, said that “illegal schemes to circumvent the TOEFL exam jeopardise both academic integrity and our country’s student visa program”.
“The TOEFL exam ensures that international students have adequate English language skills to succeed in higher education programs in the United States,” he said.
“It also helps maintain the security of our borders and immigration system. By effectively purchasing passing scores, they violated the rules and regulations of the exam, taking spots at US colleges and universities that could have gone to others.”
The students could face a prison sentence of up to five years,up to three years of supervised release and a $250,000 fine – though the Department of Justice statement about the arrests notes sentences for federal crimes are typically less than the maximum penalties.
The students are also subject to deportation upon serving their sentences.
Matthew Etre, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in Boston, said the agency works with federal law enforcement partners and academia to ensure that those involved in these scams are held accountable.
This is the latest case of convicted test fraud among Chinese students studying in the US. In 2015, 15 individuals were indicted on fraudulent charges in US college entrance exams. And according to a white paper from international student organisation WholeRen Education, the number of Chinese students facing dismissal issues for academic dishonesty is on the rise.
But Andrew Chen, chief learning officer at WholeRen Education, said the problem should be addressed through prevention more than enforcement.
“The authority in the test taking sector is ETS. Therefore, it is ETS that is ultimately responsible for the authenticity and monitoring of the entire process,” he told The PIE News. “There is no doubt that ETS should also improve their overall mechanism and the process domestic and abroad.
“ETS should further customise certain measures for each distinct market. This is not in the hands of universities directly.”
“ETS is ultimately responsible for the authenticity and monitoring of the entire process”
ETS said it could not comment on ongoing legal cases but said it takes test security very seriously and welcomes the opportunity to work with officials to stop fraud.
“There are always people who will try to gain an unfair advantage over the majority of hardworking students who test honestly,” said spokesperson Tom Ewing. “ETS has some of the most sophisticated test security measures in the industry and frequently works with law enforcement officials to combat such efforts.”
Despite the rise in fraudulent cases, Chen cautioned against “labelling or politicising” the issue.
“It is important not to categorise and associate academic misbehaviour with ethnicity or national origins. Let’s not label this as Chinese or any other nationality based issue,” he said. “The fundamental policy option for institutions and test administrators should focus on preemption for the sake of long-term prevention.”
A spokesperson for Northeastern University said it receives in excess 50,000 undergraduate applications each year.
“We thoroughly review all submissions for quality and veracity, based upon the information provided to the university,” the spokesperson said. “Like all universities, we rely on the relevant testing agencies to verify the identity of those taking standardised tests.”
A spokesperson for Penn State meanwhile said the university will review the allegation and its own Student Conduct process. “We hold our students to the highest standards when it comes to academic integrity and will cooperate fully with any ongoing investigations.”