GMAT Cheating Controversy Grows

The number of students caught up is now more than 6,000, and the testing company talks about who could have their scores canceled

A cheating scandal that has engulfed the B-school world grew vastly larger on June 27, when the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) said the number of prospective MBA students facing questions about their entrance exams now totals more than 6,000—six times the original estimate.

At the same time, GMAC tried to reassure the involved students that only those who knowingly used the Scoretop.com Web site to cheat on the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) will have their scores canceled. Because most top B-schools require the GMAT, the students' MBA dreams could be shattered.

The scandal erupted on June 23, when GMAC disclosed (BusinessWeek.com, 6/23/08) it had won a legal judgment against the Scoretop site in federal district court in Virginia. GMAC had accused Scoretop of copyright infringement, saying the site had published "live" GMAT questions—questions that were still currently in use by GMAC, the test's publisher—and other copyrighted material. The court awarded GMAC $2.3 million plus legal costs, and allowed GMAC to seize Scoretop's domain name as well as a computer hard drive containing payment and other data.

For prospective MBA students who used the Scoretop site to prepare for the GMAT, the news was devastating. GMAC is analyzing the hard drive and it vowed to cancel the scores of anyone who used the site to cheat on the exam, prohibit them from retaking the test, and notify the schools that received the tainted scores. That could mean rejection for applicants, expulsion for current students, and unspecified sanctions for graduates. "I am extremely stressed out," one GMAT test-taker who used the Scoretop site wrote in a comment to BusinessWeek.com's original story about the scandal. "I am so upset and worried right now."

GMAC said June 27 it is working to put together a list of advice and frequently asked questions concerning the controversy. It is likely to be available on the company's Web site next week.

Schools Weigh How to Respond

Meanwhile, GMAC says the man behind Scoretop, Lei Shi, has left the site's base in Aurora, Ohio, and returned to his native China, where he reportedly has taken refuge in the city of Zibo in Shandong province. Shi, who took the GMAT himself at least three times in 2002 and 2003, could not be reached June 27, and was not represented in court on the copyright infringement case.

Deans, MBA program heads, and admission directors at individual B-schools are scrambling to figure out how they will respond when GMAC begins canceling scores. Joe Fox, the head of the MBA programs at Washington University's Olin Business School, has said a lot depends on how much information is available about each student's use of the site, but the school will take any allegations seriously, adding that expulsion for current students is a possibility. In his blog, the dean of University of Virginia's Darden School, Robert Bruner, said Darden and its peer schools "will brook absolutely no cheating."

Stacey Kole, deputy dean for the full-time MBA program at the University of Chicago, says a lack of hard evidence implicating someone in actual cheating will make the decision-making process difficult. "Without hard evidence, it's very hard to say you're going to throw someone out," she says. "We don't have a problem taking action when we know someone has cheated. I have a tough time taking action when I don't know."

"Live" Questions

The GMAT, which is used by more than 4,000 graduate management programs worldwide and has been administered more than 200,000 times, is a computer-adaptive exam. By assembling a new test for every test-taker from a pool of several thousand questions, it virtually guarantees nobody gets the same test twice, or the same test as the person sitting at the next computer terminal.

GMAC develops new test questions all the time—they cost GMAC about $2,400 each—and retires those that have been in circulation.

The Scoretop site, unlike legitimate GMAT preparation companies such as Kaplan or Manhattan GMAT, offered a VIP service for $30 for 30 days that GMAC says gave visitors access to the "live" test questions. Legitimate test-prep companies use retired questions that have been legally purchased from GMAC.

It's unclear exactly how Scoretop obtained the live questions, although at least some of them were posted by the site's users after having taken the GMAT. It's also unclear whether everyone who used the site knew the questions were live. The site described the questions as being "fully owned by Scoretop [and] written by our own…tutors."

At the same time, though, many of the posts found on the site strongly suggest visitors knew the questions were live. The messages reference question "sets" and "JJs"—an acronym for "jungle juice"—which refer to groups of live questions that have been reconstructed by test-takers and posted on the site.

In one post cited by GMAC in its copyright infringement case, "h3adsh0t" describes the value of the JJs as "inestimable," adding that he saw "10-12 JJs [when I took the GMAT], word by word, and many of the other questions felt very familiar." In a "post-exam debriefing" filed by "sammi," he described how he "got 3 successive [math] questions, of which all three were from scoretop Nov or Dec! …[T]he confidence you derive out of solving a seen problem is incomparable."

Potential Score Cancellations

On June 27, a lawyer representing GMAC in the copyright infringement case said that's the kind of electronic paper trail the organization is looking for on the Scoretop hard drive and elsewhere. While the hard drive contains payment information on VIP members, the lawyer, Robert Burgoyne, says it's unlikely all VIP members will have their scores canceled by GMAC. "GMAC isn't going to start canceling scores because people are VIP members," he says. "We'll look for something that actually links people to conduct they should have known was improper."

Burgoyne says this may include individuals who posted live questions in "post-exam debriefings," those who accessed the debriefings, and those who encountered Scoretop questions on the GMAT and reported that on the site—even if there's no evidence they knew they were accessing live questions on Scoretop prior to the exam.

GMAC spokeswoman Judy Phair says the number of individuals who paid for VIP access now totals more than 6,000, a dramatic increase over the 1,000 that GMAC originally reported. The 6,000 were VIP members over the five years of Scoretop's existence, so it's possible the number includes many current applicants, current students, and MBA graduates. Since all 6,000 had access to the live questions, all 6,000 are potentially subject to score cancellations, although the exact number who will face cancellation will not be known for at least several weeks.

Nondisclosure Agreement

Many people who used the Scoretop site are already worried that cancellation of their GMAT scores might derail their careers, and in BusinessWeek.com's MBA Forum many are threatening to sue GMAC if that happens.

But it appears they would have a hard time making a case. To register for the test, prospective students must agree to GMAC's terms and conditions, which include a confidentiality agreement prohibiting the disclosure of test questions. To enter the test center, they must sign an agreement that gives GMAC the authority to cancel test scores if the test-taker discloses a question "in any form or by any means."

At the computer terminal itself, the test-taker must agree to a second, more detailed nondisclosure agreement. And in the 2008 GMAT Bulletin, GMAC reserves the right to cancel scores for any misconduct, including mere access to test content prior to the test, "even if a specific examinee's actual access to disclosed test content cannot be confirmed by GMAC."