Seventy students were involved in a pattern of smartphone-enabled cheating last month at Stuyvesant High School, New York City officials said Monday, describing an episode that has blemished one of the country’s most prestigious public schools.
The cheating involved several state exams and was uncovered after a cellphone was confiscated from a 16-year-old junior during a citywide language exam on June 18, according to a city Department of Education investigation.
Cellphones are not permitted in city schools, and when officials looked into the student’s phone, they found a trail of text messages, including photos of test pages, that suggested pupils had been sharing information about state Regents exams while they were taking them.
Sixty-nine students had received the messages and responded to them, the department said.
All of the students will have to retake the exams, and the one whose phone was confiscated, who was said to be at the center of the cheating network, faces possible suspension and may have to transfer to another school by fall, the department said. Four other students involved in the cheating could also face suspension, a spokeswoman said.
“Cheating has taken place for who knows how long,” the schools chancellor, Dennis M. Walcott, said Monday morning in an interview on the John Gambling show, a radio program in New York. “Now with technology, and that’s why we banned cellphones; people have the ability to use new technology to try to cheat. So people are always trying to think of new ways to do things. It’s not acceptable.”
The revelations that dozens of Stuyvesant students had cheated on tests not considered particularly challenging for them were the latest example of the competitive pressures inside top schools. In December, officials uncovered widespread cheating on an English final exam by students at a well-regarded school outside Houston; hundreds of students were believed to be involved, and 60 were disciplined. An SAT cheating scandal on Long Island last year, in which test takers used fake IDs to impersonate other students, led to nationwide changes in the way college admissions exams are administered.
Cheating has been a difficult issue for Stuyvesant for some years, one that students have not shied from confronting. An editorial in the Stuyvesant newspaper, The Spectator, two years ago pinpointed a culture of “academic dishonesty,” whose roots derived from an emphasis on numerical success, like high test scores, rather than on valuing learning that is not as easy to measure.
“There is too much weight put on a couple of numbers to determine your worth as a student and a human being,” said Benjamin Koatz of Forest Hills, Queens, who graduated in June and is headed to Brown University. “And the highly competitive nature at Stuyvesant lends a hand in that, but it is really endemic to the system.”
Mr. Koatz said that when a couple of points can make the difference in getting into an Ivy League school, “then there is an incentive there, especially since most of the students come from families where the goal is ‘Ivy League school or bust’; you either go to an Ivy League school or you haven’t lived up to your potential.”
He said more than 80 students had applied this year to M.I.T., which he called “crazy competition.”
Department of Education officials declined to say whether the Stuyvesant students involved in the cheating would also be forced to retake any courses, or to what extent the episode would be noted on transcripts sent to colleges. Invalidation of tests does not go on a student’s record, but a suspension can.
Last month, the principal, Stanley Teitel, sent a letter to dozens of students implicated in the cheating, telling them he found this “breach of integrity very serious.”
The letter notified them that some of their class privileges, including the right to leave school for lunch or be members of school leadership organizations like the Student Union, an important college résumé-building activity, would be revoked.
Administrators found that cheating occurred during state Regents exams for United States history and English — tests that almost every Stuyvesant student passes — and for physics. Another student, who cheated in a more traditional way, through the passage of notes during the physics Regents exam, also faces suspension.
Madeline S. Rivera, 18, who graduated from Stuyvesant this year, said the culture of cheating was not specific to her school but was a sign of the current age, “especially with social networking,” which she said made breaches easier. “I can assure you it is pretty much the same at every other high school.”
Ms. Rivera, of Astoria, Queens, said a friend relayed a story about cheating that occurred on a Regents test at a public school in Queens, though it was not treated as seriously.
As for the phone policy at the school, Ms. Rivera said, “as long as they are out of sight and out of mind,” the ban on bringing them inside is not enforced.
“At Stuy, considering that most of the school’s students are commuters, having a phone is pretty necessary for safety reasons or to notify our parents, especially since most of us stay late after school,” she said.
Norm Fruchter, the senior policy analyst at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, a nonprofit educational research and policy group, said there had traditionally been “a lot of performance pressure” at Stuyvesant High School, whose 3,300 students are admitted through a difficult citywide test.
He said those kinds of pressures seemed to be ratcheting up.
“The weight that we, societally, put on judging academic success and academic capacity by test results has increased enormously,” said Mr. Fruchter, whose son graduated from Stuyvesant High School in the mid-1980s. “It is only one measure, and if you load high stakes on that measure then you create pressure that will lead some kids to cheat.”
Elaina Polsen, a spokeswoman for the Texas school district where the cheating was uncovered, acknowledged that tests put pressure on students.
Still, she said, it was no excuse.
“We have a belief statement, and it is ‘Excellence is worth the effort,’ and we certainly do not take cheating lightly,” Ms. Polsen said. “We have actually increased the consequences for cheating. We have high expectations for our students, and cheating just will not be tolerated.”
This article, "," first appeared in The New York Times.