The GMAT cheating scandal that has roiled the business school world for nearly three months, threatening to shatter the dreams of thousands, ended this week with more of a whimper than a bang. The exam administrator voided the scores of just 84 test takers and is allowing the vast majority of them to retake the exam immediately. At least some of the voided scores belong to students who have either already been accepted to business school or have graduated.
The Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), which operates the GMAT test worldwide, said Tuesday that its investigation is over and that all test takers with canceled scores have been notified. GMAC has also notified more than 100 business schools that received the now-canceled scores—schools that are struggling to decide what to do about current students or graduates cast into admissions limbo by GMAC's decision. Some of the test takers had sent results to more than one school.
Few top business schools were spared. At No. 1-ranked University of Chicago, two students enrolled for fall admission were among those whose scores were canceled. GMAC's notification leaves the school just two weeks before the start of classes to figure out what to do. "We have professional standards and there has to be a discussion here if what happened was a violation of those standards," said Stacey Kole, deputy dean for Chicago's full-time MBA program.
Scoretop's Hard Drive Examined
The cheating scandal erupted in June, when GMAC announced that it shut down a test-prep Web site, Scoretop.com, that it had successfully sued for copyright infringement after discovering that it was posting "live" GMAT questions. Unlike the retired questions used by legitimate test-prep publications and services, the "live" questions on Scoretop were still in use on the GMAT exam. While the operator of the Scoretop site had already left the U.S. to return to his native China, thousands of Scoretop users were left worrying that their hopes of getting an MBA would be derailed by GMAC's probe.
GMAC officials said Sept. 9 that the organization has analyzed data on more than 6,000 subscribers contained in a Scoretop hard drive obtained after it shut down the site. GMAC correlated the information with its own testing records—including the actual exam questions answered by individual test takers—to identify individuals who used the site to break GMAC rules. (See the GMAC statement on probe results.)
In all it found 72 test-takers who had access to live questions on Scoretop, and another 12 who posted questions to the site from memory after taking the test. The 72 who accessed live questions will be permitted to retake the exam immediately; the 12 who posted questions will not be permitted to retake the exam for a minimum of three years. In all, GMAC canceled 569 score reports sent to business schools on behalf of the 84 individuals.
Students' Mixed Reaction
GMAC President David Wilson said the total number of test takers affected is far smaller than Scoretop's subscriber base because the trail of evidence needed to warrant score cancelation just wasn't available for the vast majority of users. GMAC meted out harsher punishment to those who posted live questions because, in GMAC's view, they committed the far more egregious offense: theft of intellectual property. "Posters are taking our material and for the first time, putting it on a public site," he said. "They were involved in stealing our material."
Efforts to reach Scoretop users whose scores were revoked were unsuccessful, but reaction to the news of the canceled scores on BusinessWeek's "Getting In" blog appeared to be evenly split between those who applauded GMAC's actions and those who thought it didn't go far enough.
"Hope GMAC…didn't punish anyone [who was] innocent," wrote one commenter. "People's lives are at stake here."
Wrote another: "Excellent work by GMAC, but more could have been canceled. Shows cheating, fraud, bribes won't work in the Western universities…."
For schools that received tainted scores, the job of reconciling the applicants' behavior with their own institutional standards and meting out appropriate punishment—or none at all—has just begun. For some programs—including Columbia University, Harvard University, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management, there is no action to be taken because the questionable scores reported by GMAC were submitted by individuals who either never formally applied or were rejected.
Applying the Honor Code
For other schools, though, the problem is more difficult and may not be resolved for weeks. At the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business, officials are reviewing the list of tainted scores to determine if any belong to current students or graduates. The school's honor code prohibits cheating—defined as "any attempt to gain an improper advantage over other students in an academic setting"—and Dean Robert Dolan said he's prepared to enforce it.
"We will take any proven violations of either GMAT testing policies or our school's honor code with utmost seriousness," Dolan says. "If any of the test takers identified by GMAC are current students at Ross, or have been granted a degree, we will contact those individuals and pursue each case in a manner consistent with the school's honor code and disciplinary procedures."
At Stanford University, 20 scores have been canceled, including those of 10 applicants who were denied admission and one student who has already graduated. Derrick Bolton, director of MBA admissions, said if any of the 10 rejected applicants reapplies to Stanford, the school will require a detailed explanation about what the person did and why. The graduate in question will meet with the dean to discuss the situation, but no additional information was available regarding any penalties the school might be considering.
Expert: Doing Nothing Is Not an Option
"We are disappointed by the actions of any individual who knowingly violated GMAC policy," Bolton said. "As an educational institution, we would like those involved to learn from this incident. Those whose scores GMAC canceled will learn from that outcome, of course. We hope that they also might learn from the experience by reflecting on their actions and taking ownership for their errors, then sharing those explanations and insights with us."
Donald McCabe, a management professor at Rutgers Business School who has done extensive research on academic cheating, said each school must decide for itself how to handle the tainted scores, but that doing nothing is not an option. "If they're convinced the GMAC evidence is solid, I think they need to do something," says McCabe. "I'm not of the school of thought that we let them all off scot-free."
If the schools do take a tough stand, will it affect the behavior of future business school applicants? McCabe, whose research has shown more self-reported cheating among business students than in any other major, thinks it will. "That's one of the few ways I see a real positive coming out of this," he said. "I hope something gets done because it will send a message—and in the case of business, you need to send a message more than in most disciplines."
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