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Group explains voiding of tests in O.C.

Trabuco Hills students talked, used study aids and sent text messages during AP exams, testing service says.

July 24, 2008|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

As a south Orange County high school made plans Wednesday for a mass retesting, the nonprofit group that administers the Advanced Placement exams offered a disturbing picture of the proctoring environment in May that led it to void the tests of nearly 400 students.

Students at Trabuco Hills High School were allowed to talk, consult study aids, send text messages to friends and leave the room in groups during the exam, the Educational Testing Service said.

Meanwhile, an attorney representing many of the students sued ETS on Wednesday, arguing that the Princeton, N.J.-based nonprofit failed to conduct even the most cursory investigation before voiding the students' exams.

An attorney representing ETS conceded that it was impossible to know whether students took advantage of the poor proctoring at the high school to cheat, but said it would be unfair to other AP test takers throughout the nation to allow their scores to stand.

"ETS is a testing service, not a law enforcement agency," ETS attorney Bruce M. Berman wrote in a letter sent Monday to the attorney representing the students. "Thus, it is not required to prove that test takers cheated as a prerequisite to canceling scores. . . . . Individual attestations of innocence are irrelevant."

Students whose tests were voided said the test organization's position defied common sense and assumed every student was guilty.

"I do have a conscience," said Helen Pastores, 18, who had four scores voided and will retake three of the exams in August before she starts her freshman year at USC. "Even though we were put in that environment doesn't mean everyone cheated."

AP exams test college-level work in 22 subject areas that can earn students credit at most colleges and universities, potentially saving them thousands of dollars in tuition, or freeing up their schedules for additional electives or a second major.

But in early May, one of the largest AP test scandals in a decade unfolded at Trabuco Hills High in Mission Viejo. ETS has strict rules about test-taking protocol, but at Trabuco, as 385 students sat for various subject exams, there were insufficient proctors in classrooms and inadequate monitoring of students, who were allowed to sit close together and face each other. Some proctors were seen reading or sleeping and some left the rooms, according to students.

Ten students later admitted cheating on statistics and economics exams by using their cellphones to send text messages. Use of electronic devices is not allowed during the tests.

But when ETS voided the scores of all 385 students who took the exams, it created an uproar in this affluent south Orange County community. Parents and students formed a group, Justice for 375, then contacted the media and retained an attorney.

Lawyer William R. Mitchell filed suit against ETS in Orange County civil court Wednesday, arguing that the nonprofit breached its contractual agreement with students by not conducting an investigation to see how widespread the cheating was and whether the proctoring irregularities affected test results. Simply comparing the May test results with previous sittings should show if the scores were unusually high, he said. If the group can't show that students cheated or the test results were marred, the test scores should stand, the lawyer said.

Meanwhile, Trabuco Hills High is gearing up for a group retesting Aug. 6 to 12. Teachers have scheduled hours of review sessions in the weeks leading up to the exams. Proctors will be retrained districtwide, said Saddleback Valley Unified Supt. Steven L. Fish, and ETS will send independent monitors to oversee the test-taking.

"With such a short time period left, we're focused on trying to get the testing environment set up, the practice sessions and getting textbooks to students," Fish said. "You've got some seniors who had four or five tests thrown out. It's a considerable burden on them and their parents."

Jina Lee, 18, took four exams, three of which were voided. Had they counted and if she had done well, she would have been able to escape taking any math or science courses at UC Irvine -- subjects that "I hate," she said. "That would have been lovely."

Lee, who plans to major in English, is dreading studying again for the tests in calculus and chemistry, her most difficult subjects.

"To know my work pretty much has gone to waste seems pretty unfair," she said. "I don't see how just because the administration didn't do their job in making sure these guidelines were followed, the student body should be punished. I didn't do anything wrong."

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seema.mehta@latimes.com

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