This week’s issue of New York Magazine has an in-depth profile of Nayeem Ahsan, the 16-year-old Stuyvesant High School student who helmed the school’s recent cheating scandal.
Last June, school officials caught Ahsan using his cell phone to help dozens of students cheat on Regents exams, which students must take before graduating. Since then, the city has launched an investigation and threatened many of the students involved with lengthy suspensions. And the school’s principal has retired, to be replaced by a former network leader who is also a Stuyvesant parent.
In the wake of these events, many GothamSchools readers told us that cheating is more widespread than officials would admit, and expressed suspicions of Principal Jie Zhang’s suggestion that the cheating ring was an isolated incident.
“I have not been made aware … or have a reason to believe that there is ongoing cheating there,” Zhang told reporters in a phone call shortly after being appointed.
The magazine piece also suggests otherwise. In addition to detailing Ahsan’s methods, which included sharing homework answers, procuring exams given by teachers in previous years, and texting students photos of entire exam booklets during last spring’s Regents exams, it describes a culture that encouraged cheating among many.
Ahsan said Stuyvesant’s educational environment put a premium on high-performance and competition. The structure of his classes often presented opportunities to game the system:
“When you get into Stuy, they show you where the graduating seniors went to college and what grades they got,” Nayeem says. “You don’t get to see names, but you get to see their GPA in every subject and their SAT scores.”
But the schoolwork was more difficult than Nayeem expected. He dreaded double-period science days, when he’d come home with nine pages of notes, handwritten back and front, then have to comb through them to complete an assignment. So he learned to set priorities. He knew, for instance, that one of his teachers checked homework once every four days.
“There were days where I had so much other work, I was like, ‘Okay, what are the chances she’s going to check today?’ And most of the time, she didn’t check.”
…By now he realized “how lazy teachers could be. I studied for the first test. But I looked at the new test and last year’s test and they were, like, 75 percent the same exact questions and the same exact answers. So I was like, ‘Okay, why am I studying?’”
In one biology class, Ashan’s teacher promised to raise everyone’s final class grade by three points—enough to push many the equivalent of a full letter grade higher—if they all completed a final assignment and got every answer right. The teacher caught Ahsan sharing his answers with other students online, but did not turn him in for cheating.
He and several other students told the magazine that the need for good Regents exam grades represented only a fraction of the pressure put on Stuyvesant students to take extreme measures to score good grades:
“Kids here know that the difference between a 96 and a 97 on one test isn’t going to make any difference in the future,” says Edith Villavicencio, a Stuyvesant senior. “But they feel as if they need the extra one point over a friend, just because it’s possible and provides a little thrill.”
…Stuyvesant’s 2012 valedictorian, Vinay Mayar, talked about the pressure at the school in his graduation speech. Mayar, who lives on the Upper East Side and just started at MIT, called his classmates “a volatile mix of strong-minded people armed in opposition against one other.” He listed a few things his friends said epitomized the Stuyvesant experience, like “copying homework in the hallway while walking to class,” “sneaking in and out of school during free periods,” and, at the end of the list, “widespread Facebook cheating.”
…“Not everyone cheats, but it is collaborative,” says Daniel Solomon, a former Stuyvesant Spectator staffer who graduated in June, and is now starting at Harvard. “One of my friends told me, ‘School is a team effort.’ That’s sort of the ethos at Stuy.”
Ahsan, who said he spoke to the reporter in hopes that he could make a case to Department of Education officials for returning him to Stuyvesant, called his Regents exam cheating ring an opportunity to help students who were struggling in certain subjects and receive help in return. His expulsion is not yet set in stone, and he has decided to wait to enroll in another high school until a final decision is made, the magazine reported.
In the meantime, Stuyvesant has cracked down on cell phone and technology use, seizing 17 cell phones in the first two days of the school year alone. Zhang is also requiring students to sign on to an academic honesty policy, and urging the student government to write an “honor code.”