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Jason Thieman sits in a lecture hall at the Purdue University Physics building, in Layfayette, Indiana, July 20, 2016. Picture taken July 20, 2016. REUTERS/Chris Bergin

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By Steve Stecklow, Alexandra Harney and Ju-min Park

SHANGHAI/SEOUL/IOWA CITY (Reuters) - For many Chinese high school students hoping to get into a U.S. university, the pitch is hard to resist.

Take English-language courses in China in a programme recognised by admissions offices at more than 60 colleges in the United States – including state universities in New York, Michigan, Iowa and Missouri. Prepare for the ACT, America’s most popular college entrance exam. And take it in mainland China, instead of travelling elsewhere as other Chinese students must.

The programme, known as the Global Assessment Certificate, also offers some students an advantage that isn’t advertised: At three different GAC centres, school officials and proctors ignored and were sometimes complicit in student cheating on the ACT, according to seven students interviewed by Reuters.

The GAC programme, which can cost students $10,000 a year or more, has emerged as one of many avenues in Asia used to exploit weaknesses in the U.S. college admissions process.

But the most remarkable aspect of this programme is that the ACT itself owns and oversees it.

The GAC programme is operated by a foreign subsidiary of ACT Inc, the Iowa-based not-for-profit that administers the crucial college entrance exam. The subsidiary, ACT Education Solutions Ltd, is headquartered in Hong Kong.

The curriculum at GAC centres is designed to teach non-native English speakers reading, writing and other skills for college. The programme has about 5,000 students in 11 countries at 197 centres. Three-quarters of the centres are in mainland China. The vast majority of GAC students take the ACT, which American colleges use to assess applicants.

Some GAC centres advertise their students’ high ACT scores and success getting into U.S. colleges. The website for one centre – Zhengzhou Cornerstone High School in Zhengzhou, China – features pictures of accomplished graduates alongside their near-perfect test scores and the U.S. schools that accepted them.

The website for the GAC programme promises universities “highly skilled international students,” and some schools award college credit for classes taken at GAC centres.

But interviews with some students who attended GAC centres call the programme’s integrity into question. One now attending the University of California, Los Angeles, said a GAC administrator in China let him practise answering almost half the questions that would appear on the actual ACT about a week before the exam was given. Another student, now at a major university in the Midwest, said his Chinese centre provided students with two articles that appeared on an ACT he later took there.

TEACHERS SPEAK OUT

What’s more, eight teachers or administrators who have worked at seven different Chinese GAC centres described cheating in programme courses. Some said it was widespread. They said students turned in assignments that were plagiarized. At two different centres, former teachers said, officials encouraged them to give students exam questions and sometimes even answers in advance to ensure that they passed.

Jason Thieman resigned in January after nearly five months as a teacher at the GAC centre at Jimei University in the southern Chinese city of Xiamen. He said he left after students complained that he was cracking down on cheating and plagiarism.

“If every university admissions office that accepted GAC students knew about what was going on with the GAC, and especially with the ACT, I think they wouldn’t want to accept the students anymore,” Thieman said. “It’s outrageous.”

A spokesman for the GAC centre said the programme would never condone cheating and that students simply didn’t like Thieman’s teaching style.

Thieman is now in the United States, pursuing a doctorate in physics. “The situation’s not fair to anybody,” he said of the GAC programme. “It’s not fair to the universities that admit” the students, and “it’s not fair to American students who actually have the proper standards in place when they take” the ACT.

Christopher Bogen, director of studies at a GAC centre in Zhuhai from 2011 to 2014, said some of his students repeatedly engaged in “intentional, flagrant cheating.” Some submitted essays that were supposed to be written in English; instead, the essays had been translated using the Google Translate web tool, he said. The GAC curriculum made cheating easier because the same tests were given “over and over again,” Bogen said. Some of those tests and other GAC assignments were available for sale online in China, Reuters found.

No one from the GAC centre where Bogen taught could be reached for comment.

ACT spokesman Ed Colby said its Hong Kong subsidiary is responsible for handling cases of alleged cheating in GAC courses. He declined to make managers there available to speak for this article.

Colby said the subsidiary thoroughly vets GAC operators and monitors their work. ACT’s head of test security, Rachel Schoenig, said the organisation had cancelled suspicious ACT scores of GAC students.

“From a test security perspective … we have taken many, many steps to address the ACT testing activities of the GAC centers,” Schoenig said.

To guard against test leaks more broadly, she said, the organisation has begun shipping the ACT in lock boxes to some overseas test centers. This month, ACT Inc announced that, to combat cheating, it planned to introduce a computerized version of the ACT for overseas test-takers in the fall of 2017.

Like other standardized testing companies, ACT Inc is battling an “emerging trend of organised fraud rings … who, for a lot of money, a lot of their own personal gain, are seeking to undermine the system for honest test-takers,” Schoenig said.

The problems with the GAC programme are not the work of outsiders, however. They are occurring within a system controlled and policed by the ACT organisation itself.

Reuters identified six GAC centers that violate the ACT’s own conflict-of-interest policy. The six centers administered the ACT while also offering commercial test-prep classes aimed at helping students score well on the college entrance exam. ACT policy prohibits test-prep businesses from administering the exam because doing so would give them an unparalleled ability to help their clients by leaking them the test.

At those locations – five in mainland China and one in South Korea – GAC operators had access to exam booklets days or weeks before the ACT was given.

COLLEGES EXPRESS SHOCK

Several U.S. colleges said they were alarmed by what Reuters discovered. They are among the 60-plus “pathway” schools that consider completion of the GAC programme in their admissions decisions and sometimes award college credit for courses taken at GAC centers.

The reports of cheating are “very disconcerting,” said Timothy Tesar, assistant director of international admissions at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. The university has enrolled 132 GAC students since 2009.

The cheating allegations are “shocking to me,” said Jonnathan De La Fuente, international admissions counselor at University of Michigan-Flint. De La Fuente estimated that the university has enrolled 15 to 20 GAC students to date, almost all from South Korea. Michigan-Flint gives college credit for GAC coursework.

“If those reports are true, we have to, as a university, look into it,” he said. “I’m wondering if those grades are even legitimate.”

ACT chief executive Marten Roorda was unavailable to answer questions for this article, spokesman Colby said.

Evidence of academic fraud among foreign students is mounting as American colleges enroll record numbers of applicants from abroad. Foreign students typically pay full tuition, a boon for U.S. schools. These applicants also are emerging as sources of profit for the testing companies whose exams help determine who gets into American universities.

A series of Reuters reports this year has revealed how foreign students are increasingly exploiting vulnerabilities in U.S. college entrance exams and other parts of the admissions process.

In March, Reuters reported that test-prep operations in East Asia were taking advantage of security flaws in the SAT, which – like its rival ACT – reuses exams. Those cram school operations harvest items from past exams, enabling students to practise on questions they may see on test day.

Reuters also found companies in China that fabricate entire college applications for students seeking to study in America. Some companies even offer to do coursework for students attending U.S. colleges.

BIG IN CHINA

In 2005, ACT Inc acquired a company that had developed the GAC curriculum and had an agreement to offer the ACT as part of the programme. After the takeover, ACT Inc formed ACT Education Solutions to run it.

The GAC programme operates like a franchise: Local operators pay the ACT subsidiary for the right to offer the curriculum at local schools or educational centers. The GAC centers are not run by ACT staff but rather by employees hired by the local operators. The programme has been particularly popular in China, where 149 of the 197 centers are located.

It’s also lucrative for ACT Inc. GAC centers each pay the ACT subsidiary a licensing fee totalling thousands of dollars plus additional fees for each student enrolled. According to ACT Inc’s most recent U.S. federal tax return, the foreign entities that run the programme generated $4.8 million in net revenue in the year ended August 31, 2015.

GAC operators undergo rigorous vetting, said ACT spokesman Colby. In China, people interested in operating a GAC centre must complete a four-page application and demonstrate they can run the centre effectively. ACT Education Solutions then inspects the site. If there are no concerns, the ACT organisation enters into licensing agreements with the centre. ACT Education Solutions audits the GAC centers, but Colby declined to say how often.

As for the ACT test, the organisation won’t disclose figures, but people familiar with the matter estimate the exam drew about 60,000 foreign test-takers last year. That’s up sharply from a few thousand per year about a decade ago, according to a former ACT employee. The SAT retains a big edge overseas, with about three times as many test takers.

Much of the ACT’s growth abroad has come in the past two years, though not by design. Convinced that the SAT had an insurmountable lead, ACT executives decided to invest little in marketing their exam overseas, former employees said.

They attribute the recent gains mostly to security problems with the rival SAT, owned by the College Board, a New York-based not-for-profit. Since May 2013, concerns about cheating have led the College Board to delay or cancel scores or to scrap tests for students taking the SAT in Asia. More test-takers turned to the ACT.

Cheating in Asia caused concerns inside ACT’s own test security unit, too. ACT has an internal staff of 14 people handling security for thousands of test centers in 177 countries. In 2015, the security unit repeatedly recommended shoring up security for the ACT overseas by increasing personnel and improving the vetting of international test centers, said a person familiar with the matter. Executives at ACT headquarters rejected the recommendations, this person said.

ACT spokesman Colby declined to comment.

ACT faced a major security breach of its own on the morning of June 10. Just hours before about 5,500 students in South Korea and Hong Kong were to take the ACT, officials in Iowa learned the test had leaked. They cancelled the exam at the last minute. Officials won’t say how security was breached, or if they know.

The June incident wasn’t the first time the ACT has leaked in Asia, say people in the test-prep industry.

Businesses in China and South Korea regularly advertise ACT exam questions and answers just before test day. One Chinese company, Huafu Education, offered to provide test items to a Reuters reporter three days prior to an exam for $762.

“What we’re offering is exactly what you’ll see on test day,” a Huafu representative said in an online chat.

A SNEAK PEEK

Former GAC students say some of the centers themselves have enabled cheating on the exam.

The GAC graduate now attending UCLA said that a week or two before he was to take the ACT in December 2014, an administrator from his GAC centre in China invited him to her office. There, he said, the administrator gave him a photocopy of an ACT booklet.

“She said these questions may be on the exam,” the student said. He estimated that about 40 percent of the questions on the ACT he later took were on the photocopied test.

“It helped,” he said. “It saved me time.” He scored 33 out of 36, he said, putting him among the top 1 percent of all test-takers.

The GAC graduate now attending the Midwestern university studied at the GAC centre at Zhengzhou Cornerstone High School in Henan Province. In May 2014, he said, Zhengzhou Cornerstone provided students with a practise exam booklet. It contained scans and photographs of sections of the ACT, the student said. He said two articles in the booklet appeared on an exam he took at the centre that fall. Another time he took the ACT at the centre, he said, he witnessed three or four students discussing answers during a break.

In a statement to Reuters, an administrator at Zhengzhou Cornerstone called the accusations “ridiculous.”

Wenyue Li graduated from Zhengzhou Cornerstone in 2015 and just completed her freshman year at McGill University in Montreal. The night before she took the ACT at the GAC centre in December 2014, she said, several classmates asked if she would be willing to help them answer math questions during a test break. In exchange, she said, they offered to share some answers to the reading section. She said she refused, but another student agreed.

She also said cheating in GAC classes at her school was “even more common” than cheating on the ACT.

The administrator at Zhengzhou Cornerstone disputed Li’s account. “We firmly resist any shortcuts or cheating,” the administrator said in the statement to Reuters. “We take every opportunity and use every means to emphasise to parents and students the importance of test security.”

A Chinese student now attending a university in Washington state provided a similar account about a different GAC centre. She said she witnessed cheating on the ACT when she took it in September 2014 at a GAC centre at Yantai Number One High School in Yantai, Shandong Province.

“I heard people asking, ‘What does this word mean, and what kind of preposition should I use?’” she said. The students spoke in English, which she said the teacher overseeing the exam didn’t understand.

“The teacher just pretended that she didn’t see that we are doing these bad things,” she said.

The Yantai GAC centre didn’t reply to requests for comment.

“OFFICIAL TEST CENTRe”

The GAC programme is also popular in South Korea, where six centers operate.

One is run at a Seoul test-prep centre – known in Korean as a hagwon – called STEPEDU. Like many cram schools, STEPEDU offers classes to prepare for the ACT. Until last month, it also offered a bonus: the opportunity to take the ACT on site.

“We are running the world’s only ACT official test centre in the private sector,” STEPEDU’s president, Sam Han, said at a May 28 conference for students interested in applying to U.S. colleges. “Many people are wondering how it is possible.”

According to Bryan Maach, an ACT vice president who oversees international markets, a hagwon shouldn’t have been permitted to give the exam. He told Reuters that places “engaged in commercial test prep are not allowed to be testing sites for us. And that’s been very consistent for many years.”

Maach said he couldn’t explain how STEPEDU was able to administer the ACT.

Han said he previously operated a GAC centre at a university in Seoul. In 2012, South Korea’s Education Ministry ordered universities to shut down study-abroad programs, declaring them an illegal threat to the country’s higher-education system.

The decree forced Han to move his GAC centre and left him with 130 students who hadn’t completed the programme. So, he said, he shifted his GAC operation to STEPEDU, the cram school where he served as president.

At the time, according to a person familiar with the matter, ACT’s test security unit recommended that the center not be allowed to administer the college entrance exam.

The advice went unheeded. STEPEDU began giving the ACT in April 2013, Han said. In English-language job postings, STEPEDU described itself as a partner of ACT Inc and “the official ACT Test provider in South Korea.”

ACT later received another warning about STEPEDU. Emails reviewed by Reuters show that Cody Shultz, a senior investigator with ACT in Iowa, was contacted by an informant last year. In one of the emails, from June 2015, the tipster states that the GAC centre “is a testing centre and a hagwon.”

Shultz assured the informant that ACT was examining the matter. “We did make some movement on the investigation,” Shultz wrote to the tipster. “We are looking at other strategies to address the larger issue of cheating in Korea.”

Even so, the organisation let STEPEDU continue to operate as an ACT test centre. ACT Inc finally ended the arrangement just before a reporter interviewed ACT officials about the matter on June 9. Han said he had told ACT that Reuters had recently visited STEPEDU.

“The GAC Korea Centre was closed as an ACT test centre shortly before your visit to ACT” in Iowa, ACT spokesman Colby said in an email. “I can provide no other details on this, as the matter is still under investigation.” He declined to make Shultz available for an interview.

Some GAC centers play the same conflicted role in China as well. Reuters identified five centers in China that administer the ACT and, contrary to ACT Inc’s policy, are run by organizations that also offer ACT test-prep classes.

One of them is a GAC centre at Zhejiang University in eastern China. The centre declined to comment. But its website recently advertised a summer test-prep class with “real ACT questions.”

The potential reward for students? “Perfect scores" on sections of the ACT.

(Reporting by Steve Stecklow in Iowa City and Seoul, Alexandra Harney in Shanghai and Ju-min Park in Seoul. Additional reporting by the Shanghai newsroom. Edited by Blake Morrison.)

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