Electronic cheating?

School district investigates possible smart-phone cheats

A Bayonne school official confirmed this week that allegations of possible cheating on school tests was investigated two weeks ago and resulted in the suspension of two students for not complying with the school district’s policy on using technology.
Students are asked to sign a “contract” about what is or is not allowed regarding devices in school such as computers or cell phones, according to Bayonne High School Principal Richard Baccarella.
Last week, rumors spread that some of the top students at the high school, those in advanced placement classes, may have cheated on their tests.
Three sources told the Bayonne Community News that an investigation was underway.
One source said that the accusations affected some of the highest academic achievers in the current graduating class.
“We’re still getting information,” said one board member.
Sources said that the problem was the result of misuse of smart phones and may have involved transmitting answers to a test.
Baccarella said that school officials were notified about a month ago about a potential problem.
“We got a report from a parent that there was cheating going on in a particular AP [advanced placement] class,” Baccarella said. “Something was sent to us anonymously that someone had done something with a telephone.”
“We started a full investigation,” he said. “When we get a complaint, we always investigate.”
He said no names were provided.
“We started to ask questions and put teachers on alert,” he said.
The report suggested that this involved “electronic cheating.”
To try to counter potential cheating, the high school started taking creative strategies, such as offering different versions of tests to different classes.
Baccarella, along with other administrators, paid frequent visits to classrooms.
“We went in as administrators to remind students of the importance of AP tests and how important they were on college acceptance and the impact they had on class ranking,” he said. “We also pointed out what is acceptable use of technology.”
Baccarella said they waged a campaign to stop the cheating if it was going on and to keep it from happening if it hadn’t happened yet.
“I met with all the teachers and administrators and visited class more often,” he said. “We put a comprehensive plan in place to discover if it was true. We have to substantiate it to determine it’s real – and then how to stop it.”
In waging that part of the campaign against possible cheating, Baccarella said he felt comfortable that they had gotten the message through to the students.
While Baccarella stopped short of saying two students were suspended for cheating, he did say suspensions were issued to students for violating the acceptable-use policy regarding the use of technology.
At Bayonne High School, students who are allowed to use cell phones during break periods during the school day are required to sign the Acceptable Use Policy. The policy outlines websites that should not be accessed and other uses of the phone.
Baccarella said that the school’s investigation started about a month ago when the parent called about the possible cheating. He said that while that person did mention the “Circle of 10,” the term for the top ten seniors in ranking, those students’ ranks have not been determined yet.
The ranking is done at the end of the school’s second marking period, and it takes two weeks to calculate.
“It’s complicated and has to be correct,” Baccarella said. “The Circle of 10 has not even been established yet.”
The school’s investigation was completed two weeks ago, at which point the two students were disciplined “for unacceptable use of technology in the building.”
Schools Superintendent Patricia McGeehan said the suspensions were not directly connected to cheating, and that there was no direct breech in the security of any test.
While Baccarella said he couldn’t give the exact rank of the two suspended, he said they were not in contention for the Circle of 10 honors. One was near the 30th rank, and the other one was near the 50th mark, “both very distant from Circle of 10.”
“These two students that were disciplined had absolutely nothing to do with the Circle of 10,” he said. “There is no Circle of 10 student that has been reprimanded or has done anything wrong.”
Baccarella said that while the investigation of cheating was closed, the oversight on such matters continues.
“We never stop paying attention to it,” he said. “We’re always on high alert. We’ll be on alert for that going forward.”
But others questioned about possible cheating said they were aware of it happening.
“I only remember two instances of brazen cheaters aided by their phones, but I don’t remember it being a heavily prevalent issue,” said a former BHS student. “But then again, I graduated in 2008, so I’m sure things have changed.”
Another student said it is a common practice for some advanced placement students to write papers for friends at BHS or do so for profit.
In fact, Jersey City Board of Education member Gerald Lyons said he has brought the issue up twice at board meetings in his city.
“I even brought in a smart watch and eyeglasses with built-in video recorders to show them how easy it is and the need to address the policies on any electronic devices during testing,” he said. “Nothing was changed. With a smart watch, you can take pictures of every page of a test and post them online before the test is even over.”
Baccarella said students often start out with the best of intentions, sharing information about lessons. In the past, study groups would meet in places like the school library. These days they join chat rooms, which could have 15 to 20 people in them.
“When they start out as a study group, they mean well; share information to help each other,” he said. “At the same time, there is a fine line between using it as a study aid and using this to give someone else an advantage.”
The challenge in dealing with this is that it involves privacy rights – as the current national debate shows between Apple and the FBI over decrypting a phone used by terrorists.
“Phones are private property,” Baccarella said. “We can’t confiscate them. We can’t spy on them.”

Technology brings new school challenges

McGeehan agreed. She said it underlined the problems associated with technology.
“We try to teach our children the appropriate use of technology,” McGeehan said. “We are very aggressive in promoting technology to prepare our students for the 21st Century. But there is another side to it. Every student has a device.”
With 2,600 students at BHS, she said that monitoring all of their electronic devices is not practical or legal.
“We’re all walking around with cell phones,” she said. “With the new world of technology, you have the other problems that come with technology. As much as phones communicate good stuff, they can communicate bad stuff.”

Students educated about role of computers

McGeehan said schools face an interesting challenge; that it is important to teach students about technology.
“We’re extremely aggressive when it comes to teaching about computers,” she said. “Every student from 3rd to 8th grade takes home a computer. That’s 10,000 Chromebooks. But on the other side, we are faced with the problem of what is appropriate. We can’t stop the way the world works. But we work hard at informing our students about what is appropriate.”
As far as alleged cheating, McGeehan echoed Baccarella.
“You always watch,” she said. “But you have to move on. You have to move forward.”

Joseph Passantino may be reached at JoePass@hudsonreporter.com.

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