Dalton had no inkling of trouble until he called the ETS two weeks after the SAT was given last November to find out if he could get his scores released early. After several more calls, ETS declined, saying they suspected that someone had taken the test for him. "I started laughing and said, 'Are you kidding me?' " Dalton recalls. " 'Who are you to tell me that I didn't take the test?' " On Dec. 11 a letter arrived from ETS confirming its doubts.
"I was freaked," says Dalton, 18. And with good reason. A star swimmer at Holy Cross, he was hoping to win an athletic scholarship to nearby St. John's University, which his brother, Peter, 20, attends. But the National Collegiate Athletic Association requires an SAT score of at least 700—out of a range of 400 to 1,600—for scholarship students.
On his first try, the previous May, Dalton had scored just 620. When his performance zoomed to 1,030 on the second, the gain set off alarms at ETS. "The chances of a student increasing his scores by that amount are rare," says ETS president Gregory Anrig.
ETS reviews about 1 percent of the 1.8 million tests it administers to high school students each year—half of them because of a jump in score of 350 points or more—and declines to validate some 30 percent of those. In Dalton's case, a low score on his PSAT (a practice test taken in the fall of his junior year) was consistent with his first SAT but not the second, says the testing firm. More damning still, they claim, is that the signatures on the two tests do not match. ETS offered to go to arbitration or to have Dalton retake the test.
But Brian, who insists he did not cheat, and his parents, Peter, a New York City police detective, and Joann, a secretary for the New York City Board of Education, decided on another course: They are suing ETS to have Brian's score validated, and they are seeking damages of more than $300,000. (ETS recently won a case against a Maryland student, in which a university student admitted he had taken the test for the student.)
Brian, a C-plus student who ranks 76th in a class of 236 students, acknowledges that he has not tested well in the past. "I didn't take the PSATs seriously because it was just practice," he says, adding that he had mononucleosis when he took his first SAT test last May. "I was tired and didn't complete the test the way I would have liked," he says. The increase in scores, he says, is due at least in part to a $695, six-week course he took from Princeton Review, one of the nation's largest SAT coaching firms. "I was so excited with the course, I came home and said I learned more in one night than in four years of high school," Brian says.
With an endorsement like this, it's not surprising that Princeton Review is solidly in Dalton's corner. Convinced that Brian is telling the truth—and presumably anticipating a publicity bonanza should he prevail in court—the firm is paying half the Daltons' legal expenses. "If someone took the SAT test for Brian, then someone took the course for him as well," contends John Katz-man, president of Princeton Review. Katzman, who admits that 150 points is a more usual gain for his students—ETS maintains that coaching adds about 40 points—reveals that Brian scored a 980 on his final practice SAT.
Peter Dalton, incensed with ETS—"I told them they were messing with somebody's life"—launched an off-duty investigation of his own. He contacted a test administrator who had his son pick out, lineup style, the woman who was proctor at his test—she and two students who took the test say they saw Brian there—and he submitted Brian's test signature to a second analyst, who said it matched other samples of his signature. When Peter requested that Brian's score sheet be fingerprinted, ETS refused.
With Brian's future up in the air, things have been tense in the Dalton household. "I'm on edge a lot," says Brian. His mother, Joann, compares the situation to "watching someone hurt your son in front of your eyes and you have your hands tied and can't do anything about it."
A footnote: Brian says that when he saw how much stress the conflict was causing his family, he decided to retake the test. His parents talked him out of it. After 25 years on the police force, his father, in particular, has strong feelings about right and wrong. "It's time to stand up for what we believe in," says Peter Dalton. "If we don't, then I've wasted 25 years of my life."