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Catch Me If You Can

by Jerry Portwood | Manhattan magazine | August 28, 2012

The insidious “cell” of scoundrels was “busted.” Honesty won out when honorable adults ferreted out the “cheat ring” and put a stop to this “shocking” corruption.

Reading the hyperbolic language deployed in the New York media when Stuyvesant High School students were found sharing answers on a city exam earlier this year, one would suspect a “mafioso” element to the affair, or the workings of some kind of junior-league terrorist clan. Tabloid headlines made it sound as though an underground river of test answers was oozing through the city’s prestigious school system, infecting everyone in its path.

But the truth is much less definitive, and infinitely more thought-provoking.

Exactly What Happened?
On June 18, the cellphone of 16-year-old Nayeem Ahsan, a Stuyvesant junior, was confiscated during a citywide Spanish exam; a New York City Department of Education investigation discovered a trail of text messages that suggested he had shared photos of other state Regents exams with fellow students. The number of participants implicated in the scandal started at 70, and eventually topped out at nearly 100, according to sources.

It was the way it went down that shocked most observers.

Cellphones are not permitted in public schools, and students often have to pass through temporary metal detectors before taking tests, so one would think it would be next to impossible to get a phone through, much less use it for cheating. Indeed, students we interviewed from other city schools said they’d never even heard of anyone taking photos of tests and passing them around. “They may have back tests from the year before,” one student speculated. “But photos of tests, and passing them around? Never. It just seems stupid.”

Ahsan was subsequently booted from Stuyvesant, despite the fact that more than 250 students signed a petition demanding he be allowed to stay. The other test-takers caught in the scandal were luckier, however: They were allowed to retake the tests, enraging many who thought the punishment too lenient for this type of egregious behavior.

Concerned callers to radio shows demanded the cheaters’ heads. Parents decried the “despicable” teens who sullied their school’s—and their own—reputations. And it wasn’t only students whose lives were affected: Stuyvesant principal Stanley Teitel resigned, effective September 1, after serving at the helm for 13 years (and for decades more in other capacities at the school). Although he stated the reason for his departure was to allow him to devote more energy to his family and personal endeavors, many believe the Department of Education simply couldn’t abide the ugly headlines surrounding the scandal, and forced him to fall on his sword.

While critics fumed, however, many of the city’s students admitted they weren’t so surprised that cheating took place. One anonymous insider even posted on a message board after the story broke, “Stuy kids are supposed to be smart enough to cheat and not get caught.”

How Do Students Cheat?
One of the biggest hurdles in grappling with the problem of cheating is that today, in such a technologically complex world, there’s no shortage of ways to do it. Academic dishonesty can range from copying homework to plagiarizing a passage in an essay by pasting it from Wikipedia. Although public schools have banned cellphones from their campuses, resourceful students still find ways to sneak them in and cheat on exams by sharing answers via seemingly innocuous smartphone photos, or Googling answers when taking tests away from the group. For the unprepared student, it can even mean rescheduling a test so one has more time to study. And if a student is wealthy, and has the means to hire a tutor, how long, then, before the tutor is asked to write or edit a take-home paper?
It all happens.

And as it turns out, copying answers, plagiarizing and “hiring the work out” are only the most conspicuous of student sins. Being diagnosed with a learning disability to receive extra—or even unlimited—time during tests (including standardized tests, such as the SAT) has quickly become one of the easiest and most popular rackets. One teacher at an elite New York school estimated that a third to half of the students at that school had been diagnosed with a learning disability. And there’s no real way of knowing who’s being treated for a real problem and who’s just faking it.

Dr. Sheri Spirt, a clinical assistant professor at NYU Medical Center and psychopharmacologist who specializes in anxiety and mood disorders, treats numerous children, many the offspring of Wall Street titans and high-powered executives. In a typical month, Spirt says one in four new patients will likely be diagnosed with ADHD, and the remaining three with some sort of mood or anxiety disorder. She adds that prescribing Ritalin and Adderall, two drugs used to treat attention deficit disorders, doesn’t mean a student will do better.

“They come in and say, ‘I have to have more test time, but my school needs a letter.’ So I give them a battery of tests,” Spirt explains. “If a student is intellectually bright, and gets proper treatment, scores can improve.”

But despite the fact that Spirt, who has an office on the Upper West Side, makes each diagnosis carefully, based on clinical history and objective testing, she admits that the symptoms of ADHD and similar conditions can be gleaned from popular books (such as Driven to Distraction) and used to fake the tests to earn the “disability” diagnosis.

Want to read more of "Catch Me If You Can"? Click here to read the full article from the September issue of Manhattan!