Education

Ground Zero | On your marks, get help, go — GRE scam and the network of aspirants, ghostwriters and coaching institutes

Illustration: Satheesh Vellinezhi  

During the COVID-19 lockdown, 22-year-old Nishita wanted to give the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE), an admission requirement for many graduate schools in the United States and Canada, one last shot. Nishita was dissatisfied with her previous scores of 300 or less out of a maximum score of 340 in the first two components of the exam: verbal reasoning and quantitative reasoning. Her dream was to secure admission to one of the prestigious Ivy League universities in the U.S., and an impressive score in the GRE was an important step towards that goal.

While she was preparing for the exam, Nishita got a call that gave her a flicker of hope but also made her uneasy. The caller, who had apparently got her number from the database of a coaching institute, told her that she would be guaranteed a score of 320 if she was willing to pay ₹60,000. This score, the caller said, would be facilitated by a ‘helper’ if Nishita chose to take the ‘GRE at Home’, a facility offered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), which administers the GRE, during the lockdown.

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“I was stunned but I continued the conversation just to understand the mechanism. I gently rejected the offer as I thought it was a prank call,” says Nishita, an engineering graduate and a native of Telangana. However, when she shared the conversation with a few friends and cousins, Nishita was surprised to learn that such a ‘facility’ was already in place and some test takers had already gained from ghostwriters. Nishita finally did not take the exam.

Soon after the ETS gave aspirants the option of taking the exam from home, Hyderabad, Vijayawada, Guntur, Krishna and a few other regions have apparently emerged as hubs of fraud. In some places, students and parents say they were charged as much as ₹90,000 by callers. These hubs are spread across Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, fertile grounds for such dubious activities given the craze for emigration to the U.S. since the mid-1990s following the Information Technology boom.

A well-oiled mechanism

Rahul, 22, who is in his final year of engineering at a college in Vijayawada, says he found himself in a similar situation. An unknown caller promised to improve his scores in the verbal and quantitative reasoning papers. Rahul says an acquaintance, whom he refused to name, got a ghostwriter to do the test for him and got a score of 325/340.

Shravani, 23, from Visakhapatnam, says she too got a similar offer for the verbal and quantitative reasoning tests. The third component of the GRE exam, analytical writing, requires the candidate to write an essay. No ghostwriter would help her there, the caller told her. Shravani’s friend, Karthika, was initially willing to take the risk as she was sure that she would not be able to score more than 300. However, having developed cold feet now, she has not decided whether she should allow a proxy to write the exam.

While candidates from Telangana and Andhra Pradesh narrated similar stories, GRE candidates in Tamil Nadu and Kerala say they have received no such calls offering them ‘helpers’ to secure good scores by hook or by crook. Mukunthan, an aspirant from Chennai, who is preparing for the exam through a coaching centre, says he has received messages from many institutes advertising their programmes, but none of them assured him high scores with assistance for the exam. Similarly, Daniel Varghese, Director of the Thiruvananthapuram-based Centre for American Studies, rules out the possibility of such groups finding takers in Kerala. A matter of concern, however, is that several GRE aspirants from Kerala usually make a beeline for coaching institutions in Hyderabad in spite of the high standards of training provided in their own State, says N.M. Babu, former senior faculty of English, University College, Thiruvananthapuram. “There have always been allegations that candidates who appear for such exams from or in Hyderabad have a high rate of success than those appearing elsewhere,” he says.

When a reporter from The Hindu contacted an institute which has been in the business for years, the owner promised a good score for the “candidate” for a negotiated sum. He instructed the reporter, who said he was the father of a student, to travel to Guntur with two laptops a day before the exam. He assured the reporter that his “son” would score 320 if the “father” paid ₹55,000 in addition to the GRE’s official fee of $213, which is about ₹15,800. The owner also said that the GRE score would depend on the amount that the parents or student was willing to pay, which could be anywhere between ₹55,000 and ₹85,000. He claimed that there is a full-fledged system in place with “experts” to handle the exam for candidates. The owner said the student would have to choose to take the GRE from home but go to Guntur a day in advance and answer the exam from the institute.

A few teachers who take classes for the quantitative and verbal components of the exam say they have also been approached by those running the racket to write the exam for a huge sum, an offer which they say they turned down. “It is estimated that the business in the Krishna-Guntur region in the next three months can alone be worth about ₹30 crore,” a teacher says.

Conversations with students and institutes revealed that there is a well-oiled machine in place that helps students cheat and secure good scores in the fiercely competitive exam taken by tens of thousands every year. The scam seems to involve a chain of participants ranging from aspirants to teachers to ghostwriters to coaching institutes. While the matter has been reported to ETS, the testing service is yet to take any specific action.

Modus operandi

Narsi Reddy Gayam, an MIT professional who promotes Promac, a company that trains about 3,000 students every year for competitive exams like the GRE in Hyderabad, explains the modus operandi. “Experts,” he says, sit across the test taker at the centre. The questions on the screen are captured by a mobile phone camera placed at a certain angle so that the act is not caught by the computer camera monitoring the test takers constantly. Then the “expert” indicates the answers to the candidate either through a slip or a hand sign.

Another method involves “experts” operating from different locations. Candidates start the test and scroll through the 20 questions in each of the four sections by clicking the ‘next’ option. As the question rolls by, the image of the question is captured on a mobile phone camera and sent to a team of “experts” sitting at different locations. Since the time limit for each section is 30 minutes, the “experts” revert with the answers quickly. All the candidate has to do is scroll up and tick the correct answer.

In the earlier version of the GRE, a candidate could not move to the next question without answering the first. But in the updated system, a candidate can move up and down the 20 questions in each section. This has helped fraudsters, says a senior teacher at a coaching institute who has been approached by a few students for guidance on the issue.

ETS representatives dispute these claims. They say the test takers are asked to lock the door and show the room at a 360-degree angle before the test begins. This is done to ensure that no one is hiding in the room. Mohammed Samiuddin, a senior consultant at the India Resource Centre, a partner of ETS, says the software doesn’t allow mirroring of the screen. A proctor monitors even the eye and facial movements of the test takers and any suspicious activity is reported immediately, he says.

Madhumitha from Chennai, who took the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) from home corroborates Samiuddin’s claims. She says she was asked to provide a 360-degree view of the room and was asked to sit straight facing the camera.

A student of the College of Engineering, Guindy, Chennai, also supports Samiuddin’s argument. He says the monitoring is quite stringent. He was alerted a couple of times when there were ambient noises, he says. “I was taking the test from a closed room but the mic picked up the sound of an autorickshaw on the road,” he says. He was immediately given warning alerts though he had not moved out of the vision of the camera, he says.

But Samiuddin agrees that there is fraud taking place, particularly in Hyderabad. “Some people seem to be exploiting certain shortcomings of the system after the test starts,” he says. The ETS has been alerted about the scam, he adds. But no candidate has approached the ETS with facts that have been verified, he says.

Samiuddin says there can be no impersonation as the candidate’s photograph is captured during the exam. The entire test session is recorded and the photo from the test session is made available in the ETS data manager.

Like students, some teachers also say cheating is extremely difficult. A. Jothikannan Vibedu, a GRE trainer who teaches the quantitative section in Coimbatore, says it is extremely difficult for the candidates to cheat as they have time to only solve the questions. “Students need time to understand the questions and then give the correct answer. It is impossible for someone to solve the questions and send the answers to the candidate in such a short period,” he says.

The software used by ETS, ‘ProctorU’, doesn’t capture the sound in the room, says Narsi Reddy, contradicting what the Chennai students say. He thinks that this is being exploited by scamsters. “ETS should take this scam seriously. Else, the GRE will lose its credibility just like the TOEFL did after a similar fraud was unearthed by the Hyderabad police in 2011. There are hardly any TOEFL takers now,” he says.

Suspicious scores, and inquiries

Unusually high GRE scores during the lockdown and calls by prospective test takers to coaching institutes seeking information about ghostwriters was what led to suspicion this time. Doubts also emerged when scores of over 310 became quite common in the ‘GRE at Home’ papers. Agencies that provide coaching to students say they were shocked to see high scores among students with limited capabilities. While 270-280 is the average score in GRE, the ‘GRE at Home’ exam threw up unusual figures of 310 and 325.

Ground Zero | On your marks, get help, go — GRE scam and the network of aspirants, ghostwriters and coaching institutes
 

There was an inkling that something was wrong when some candidates scored 167 and 168 in the verbal and quantitative sections but only about 2-2.5 out of 6 in the analytical section. The analytical component is difficult to copy as the language skills of candidates are tested through an essay, which the prompters can’t improve given the time constraint. “Those who score 165 and more in the verbal and quantitative sections generally score well in the third section too, but this scenario was different,” says Reddy.

Candidates apparently also tried their luck on a website called passpsychometric.com, which offers assistance on payment. A note on the website says, “You can pay PassPsychometric to pass your Numerical, Verbal, Logic, Diagrammatic, Inductive, Abstract, SJT, Personality and other psychometric tests - alleviating you from any unnecessary concerns of how to pass the daunting online reasoning psychometric tests!” ETS says it is aware of this website and is looking to take legal action. The website does not list any phone numbers. A query submitted by The Hindu through the ‘contact us’ section on the website did not elicit any response.

Samiuddin agrees that websites are openly advertising such facilities but because they use Virtual Private Networks (VPN), they remain untraceable. He also says candidates need to be wary of exploitation. “At least 80% of such fraudsters may be fooling students with false claims. They know students are afraid that their scores will be cancelled if they report that they were cheated,” he says.

Informing ETS

Over a month ago, some candidates and the Manya coaching centre informed ETS about the scam. After an initial complaint to ETS Support, Manya executives informed ETS’s India partner, Learning Links Foundation (LLF), of the details of the scam in a phone call on December 9. The LLF promised to escalate the issue at the ETS headquarters. On December 15, LLF reported that the head of the ETS Office of Testing Integrity would investigate the matter further.

On December 18, Manya Vice President Vandana Marda wrote again to LLF as well as to senior ETS officials, including John Kochanski, senior director of corporate strategy and business development at the company’s headquarters in New Jersey. She suggested that ETS suspend home testing, noting that the scam endangered the credibility of the GRE.

“Waiting anxiously to hear from ETS on resolving this. Perhaps ETS should close down GRE home testing immediately till such time you have found a foolproof method to conduct the test,” read the email, seen by The Hindu. “Please keep us updated of the steps ETS is planning to take. Perhaps ETS should involve PR agencies to spread awareness about the fraudulent activities happening and should notify students to not become victims,” the email said.

In a later email to ETS, Manya also threatened to report the scam to the police as a case of cybercrime, but has not yet done so, saying that would be the “last resort”.

Manya says up to 80% of students who would normally enrol for GRE coaching are now only opting for IELTS (International English Language Testing System) coaching. The English language test, which is run by British Council, can only be taken at testing centres and not at home and is therefore not susceptible to fraud.

A question of credibility

Some students, desperate to secure admission to a good college, are willing to pay a substantial amount to cheat the system. Two months of GRE coaching classes cost about ₹18,000 while scamsters charge about ₹60,000-₹70,000 depending on the score the student desires.

Several universities and colleges have already waived test scores as requirements for admission this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Any indication that home testing scores are suspect could lead to lower use of GRE scores as a criterion for admission going forward. “We cannot have another U.K.-like incident,” says another teacher in Visakhapatnam, who was approached by middlemen. The teacher is referring to an incident from six years ago when candidates were caught having the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC) exam faked for them. Back then, by the time the investigation was completed, the students had finished their courses and had taken up jobs only to be charged of this crime. Deportation notices were sent to them. These students in the U.K. have been fighting deportation for many years and their work visas have been revoked.

The revelations on ‘GRE at Home’ are similar. It is believed that this is happening not just in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana but may have spread to other States, though in lower numbers, as coaching institutes, through which operations are channelised, are well-networked across the country.

“Students should not risk their future by falling into such traps. They may be jailed or deported if their scores are found to be acquired using dubious means,” says Professor G.V.K. Reddy, Professor at the Vardhaman College of Engineering, who also guides students on GRE and U.S. admissions.

Reddy recalls how actor Felicity Huffman was sentenced to imprisonment for paying thousands of dollars to have one of her daughter’s SAT scores inflated.

K.H. Vasudev, Regional Manager for Manya’s Andhra and Telangana business, says there must be more awareness. “In a few cases where blatant cheating was detected by the proctor, students are reporting that their exams got terminated, or that their scores got cancelled,” he says. “If ETS is later forced to recognise the widespread cheating on home tests, say after six months when students have been admitted into colleges, we may even see students getting deported. This will cause embarrassment to the families and the country.”

ETS responds

On January 7, a month after Manya flagged the issue with ETS, the head of the ETS Office of Testing Integrity thanked the coaching centre for sharing its concerns. There was no indication of specific action being taken, and Manya plans to reply asking for more clarity.

In response to queries from The Hindu, an ETS spokesperson said the company will investigate complaints and ban students connected to scamsters, but will also continue to conduct at-home testing even after COVID-19 is no longer a threat.

“ETS is aware of this website [passpsychometric.com] and we are taking immediate legal action to have it taken down to protect the integrity of our tests,” said a spokesperson. There was no mention of complaints going beyond this particular website.

Since the launch of home tests nine months ago, “tens of thousands” of test takers have registered for them in India alone. “The at-home offerings will continue to be part of ETS’s product portfolios to provide students with as many testing options as possible even in a post-COVID world,” said the spokesperson. The response further stated that “in our decades of experience, we know that no matter the format, there will always be a small number of individuals who will seek an unfair advantage. This is why ETS has an Office of Testing Integrity that constantly reviews, investigates and acts on these matters. As such, we continue to stand by the validity of our scores.” The ETS spokesperson also warned that “test takers risk having their scores invalidated, and being banned from testing by ETS if found to be connected to these scams.”

Names of candidates have been changed to protect their identity. Additional reporting by Priscilla Jebaraj (New Delhi), Sujatha R. and Pon Vasanth B.A. (Chennai), and Sarath Babu George (Thiruvananthapuram)

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Printable version | Mar 5, 2021 4:46:08 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/education/ground-zero-gre-and-the-network-of-aspirants-ghostwriters-and-coaching-institutes/article33532981.ece

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