June 24, 2008

Shutting Down a GMAT Cheat Sheet

More than 1,000 prospective MBA students who paid $30 to use a now-defunct Web site to get a sneak peak at live questions from the Graduate Management Admissions Test [GMAT] before taking the exam may have their scores canceled in coming weeks. For many, their B-school dreams may be effectively over.

On June 20, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia granted the test's publisher, the Graduate Management Admission Council [GMAC], a $2.3 million judgment against the operator of the site, Scoretop.com. GMAC has seized the site's domain name and shut down the site, and is analyzing a hard drive containing payment information.

GMAC said any students found to have used the Scoretop site will have their test scores canceled, the schools that received them will be notified, and the student will not be permitted to take the test again. Since most top B-schools require the GMAT, the students will have little chance of enrolling. "This is illegal," said Judy Phair, GMAC's vice-president for communications. "We have a hard drive, and we're going to be analyzing it. If you used the site and paid your $30 to cheat, your scores will be canceled. They're in big trouble."

Small Advantage to Test Takers GMAC sued the operator of the site, Lei Shi, for using it to distribute copyrighted GMAT-related materials without GMAC's permission. Shi, who has reportedly returned from the site's base in Ohio to his native China, is under investigation by the FBI, GMAC says. Shi, who did not have legal representation for the GMAC lawsuit, could not be reached for comment.

While the consequences for students may be severe, the advantage they gained by using Scoretop is almost inconsequential. Unlike other GMAT test-prep sites, which use retired questions, Scoretop and others claim to provide access to "live" questions that test takers might encounter when they show up for the exam. Participants on the site would debate the proper answers. But the GMAT uses a computer adaptive format that generates a new test for every user based on responses to previous questions from a stockpile that contains thousands of possible questions. "Even if a site is illegally able to obtain some real questions, it is extremely unlikely that a test taker will see the same questions on the live exam," says Larry Rudner, GMAC vice-president for research and development.

Scoretop has been in operation since 2003. Visitors to the Scoretop Web site before it was shut down would have encountered posts from happy users and a list of "test experiences," users' firsthand reports about the most recent test questions. But on June 23, they found this message from GMAC: "GMAC takes cheating very seriously, especially attempts to obtain access to live test questions in advance of an exam. We also take very seriously any unauthorized distribution of our copyrighted GMAT preparation materials. If you are caught disclosing, accessing, or using 'real' GMAT questions your GMAT score will be cancelled [and] you may be subject to a civil lawsuit or criminal prosecution."

The news about the cheating scandal was the talk of the annual GMAC conference in Chicago over the weekend, where the organization's President and CEO David Wilson described the latest developments for an audience of 700.

It's unclear how individual schools will respond. More than 4,000 graduate management programs use the test as part of the admissions process, but many of those using sites like Scoretop seek admission to the most competitive programs. So the fallout is likely to be limited to top schools.

Several schools, contacted June 23, said it was far too early to determine what fate awaits students or prospective students whose scores are canceled. "It's impossible to say at this point what that means," said Ed Anderson, Duke's associate director of admissions.

Some Scoretop Users May Have MBAs Joe Fox, director of MBA programs at Washington University's Olin Business School, said a lot depends on what information GMAC can provide about individual students, especially the frequency with which they used the site. "There's an infraction, that's for sure," Fox said. "At a minimum it flies in the face of our code of professional conduct. We could do anything we wanted -- from a slap on the wrist to expulsion from the program -- and we'd be well within our rights."

Since the Scoretop site has been in operation since 2003, it's possible that students with tainted GMAT scores are in the application process, currently enrolled, or already graduated. For those in the application process, the applicants may be rejected, and for those currently enrolled, expulsion is a possibility.

Several years ago, when a Chinese national was caught taking the GMAT for dozens of prospective students, one Olin student who had the test taken on his behalf was dismissed before he could complete his degree, Fox said. That's a possibility this time around, too. "I think it's fair to say we'll take this seriously," he added. "It could be the end of the line."