The foreign language department launched an investigation after Spanish teacher Abigail Carpenter received reports about students cheating on online homework in her Spanish III class in late February. The administration, led by Assistant Principal of World Languages Dr. Ernest Oliveri, discovered that students in other Spanish III classes and in some French classes were posting homework answers on Facebook class groups.
Vista Higher Learning Central (VHL), a textbook publishing company used by most of the foreign language department, allows teachers to assign online homework that students complete through their website. Teachers may choose how many attempts students are given to complete the homework before it is officially scored. Many Spanish teachers assign most, if not all, of their homework through the VHL website.
While some students have used the argument that cheating is inevitable at a competitive school, Interim Acting Principal Eric Contreras disagrees. “I don’t think that it is inevitable. Inevitability means there aren’t choices and we all have a choice when we cheat,” Contreras said.
Many students are members of the Facebook groups in which the cheated occurred, but the evidence is circumstantial. Students who were suspected of participating in the cheating were called into a meeting with the administration, including Assistant Principal of Security, Health and Physical Education Brian Moran. All students who were found to be directly involved had an additional meeting with Dean and physical education teacher Vasken Choubaralian.
According to Stuyvesant’s policies, students who commit a first offense of academic dishonesty receive a warning and their parents and guidance counselors are informed. Students who commit a second offense receive suspension.
In addition to the school’s academic dishonesty punishments, the foreign language department made the decision to give all students directly involved zeros on multiple assignments.
The department also acted swiftly to implement new homework and classroom policies designed to combat future cheating. Many teachers have begun to give frequent pop quizzes and only allow one attempt to correctly complete VHL homework assignments. “I think […] especially the pop quizzes will eliminate the cheating. If [students] are doing what they’re supposed to be doing, then the [pop quizzes] will probably be really easy,” Choubaralian said.
When the one-try homework policy was implemented, many students took to social media, especially Facebook, to express their opinions on their homework grade being based on the accuracy of their work instead of solely on completion. Simple mistakes such as placing an extra space between words or failing to capitalize can cause the homework question to be marked wrong by the VHL online system, and no partial credit is given. “I think the program itself is created in a very bad way,” Chowdhury said, “If you have five questions and you miss a comma, that is minus 20 right there, and if you get an 80 on one homework that ruins your entire homework average.”
The issue caught the attention of the Student Union (SU), who investigated the situation. Junior Caucus President Pallab Saha and Senior Caucus President Laszlo Sandler met with Dr. Oliveri and Carpenter and decided the best course of action is to allow teachers to keep the one- try policy and see how it works out before further changes are made.
Despite the protests, the foreign language department maintains its stance. “The more attempts that a student is allowed to check their work, the less the student has to think about the work itself. The objective of homework is for the students to learn something. If they are just clicking the mouse until they get the right number of points then that is a concern to us,” Dr. Oliveri said.
The situation has not provoked any serious action on the part of the administration to prevent cheating throughout the entire school. However, Contreras believes that part of the key to preventing academic dishonesty is continuing an open discussion. “Policies are meaningful when we engage in conversations as a community. I will be sure to do that with all of our incoming freshmen through Freshmen Seminar. I am also going to ask teachers to include it in their grading policies,” Contreras said.
For now, the SU will not be taking further action. “Currently, it seems that the Spanish teachers have calmed down,” Chowdury said. “Students aren’t having too many issues […] and complaining to us, so we have decided to pause on that and not follow up because we have other projects that we are focusing on, but if the students feel like at any point that they are not able to keep up with what is going on or there is a change in policy that they don’t like, we will intervene.”