In 2015 and 2016, three aspiring U.S. college students from China, who repeatedly underscored on an English-language college admissions test, paid a fellow Chinese student to take the test for them.
The scheme paid off, allowing the three students to gain admission into well-known American universities.
Federal authorities caught up with them Thursday, though, arresting all four and charging them with conspiring to defraud the United States. The charge carries a sentence of up to five years in prison, up to three years of supervised release, and a fine of $250,000. The four also are subject to deportation after conviction and serving any sentence imposed.
Four students identified
The U.S. Department of Justice identified the imposter as Yue Wang, a 25-year-old student at the Hult International Business School in Cambridge outside Boston, and the three cheaters as Shikun Zhang, 24, of Northeastern University; Leyi Huang, 21, of Penn State University; and Xiaomeng Cheng, 21, of Arizona State University.
“Illegal schemes to circumvent the (Test of English as a Foreign Language) TOEFL exam jeopardize both academic integrity and our country’s student visa program,” William B. Weinreb, acting U.S Attorney in Boston, said. “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.”
The TOEFL is an English-language test recognized by more than 9,000 colleges, universities and agencies in more than 130 countries. It is required of foreign students by many American universities and used by the United States government in issuing student visas.
The minimum required score varies from school to school. For underachieving foreign students, one method of meeting the requirement is to hire a test-taker, according to an affidavit filed by an agent of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The arrests grew out of a 2016 investigation into fraud involving Chinese nationals and college admissions exams in the Boston area. ICE and Diplomatic Security Service agents had received a tip that a Chinese student was planning to impersonate another Chinese student and take an upcoming TOEFL test in her place.
The impostor, identified in the affidavit as “YY” and a student at the Hult International Business School, was identified and removed from the testing room by an investigator with Educational Testing Service, a 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.
Wang originally had been hired to take the test but got cold feet after reading news accounts of test-takers being arrested, and instead hired YY, according to the affidavit. Wang later admitted to receiving $7,000 for taking the TOEFL on three separate occasions in 2015 and 2016.
In one instance, she far outperformed her client. 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.
Cheng has not admitted to the conspiracy, but Zhang and Huang have, according to the affidavit.
This is not the first time Chinese students have been accused of cheating on standardized tests to gain university admission in the United States.
In 2015, 15 Chinese nationals were indicted on charges of conspiring to defraud ETS and the College Board by having impostors take the TOEFL, the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and the Graduate Record Examination (GRE).
According to the Institute of International Education, there were nearly 320,000 Chinese students in the United States during the 2015-2016 academic year.