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Schools act to prevent high-tech cheating on standardized tests

Officials fear students will take pictures of exam items and post them on social media sites. Some schools are taking away students' electronics at test time.

May 06, 2013|By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times
  • Students take a standardized test. Last year, 36 questions from various standardized exams ended up on social media sites.
Students take a standardized test. Last year, 36 questions from various… (Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles…)

The proliferation of cellphones and their potential use for cheating has prompted heightened security measures on this year's administration of standardized tests in California schools.

The chief concern is that students will take pictures of test items and post them on social media sites, which occurred last year.

In response, many schools have begun collecting cellphones from students during testing periods. At the state level, there are checks of social media sites "every 15 minutes" by a team from the state education department and the national Education Testing Service, officials said.

"There shouldn't be electronic devices used," said Paul Hefner, a spokesman for the California Department of Education. Still, "we've had several dozen reports so far. All are being reviewed and the school districts notified."

Hefner had no details about specific violations but said reports coming in so far are not about pictures of test items but of the covers of test booklets, for example. He also acknowledged that students could photograph items — and compromise the tests — without advertising their transgressions in such places as Facebook or Instagram.

If a security breach is serious enough, a school could lose its rating on the state's Academic Performance Index, which could lead to sanctions, including loss of funding. Students face such ramifications as suspensions. The stakes also are high for the state. If too many test items are compromised, the entire testing cycle could be invalidated.

Last year, 36 questions from various standardized exams ended up on social media sites. Those items have been replaced. And, for the first time, the state dealt a penalty to 12 schools, ruling them ineligible for the next round of state academic awards. Local schools affected were Glendale High, Millikan High in Long Beach and Rowland High in Rowland Heights. North Hollywood High was initially targeted until officials determined that the offending student had transferred to Birmingham Community Charter in Van Nuys, which endured the penalty instead.

In all, 249 individuals posted 442 images of test materials that were linked to 147 schools in 94 California school districts. Most images were not of actual test questions.

Long Beach Unified is determined to avoid any repeat. It's posted signs in each testing room stating that "unauthorized electronic devices MAY NOT be used at any time during the testing session." Proctors also instruct students to put cellphones in backpacks, and then the backpacks are collected, said district spokesman Chris Eftychiou.

State officials wanted all schools to get the message. They rewrote the testing manual, revised testing procedures and added repeated instructions to be read aloud to students. They provided wording for a warning sign to post in classrooms during the test. That in itself was unusual, because other rules require taking down all signs and posters — lest students get clues on spelling and syntax from them.

"Test examiners must ensure that students clear their desks and stow away all books, electronic devices ... and other materials not needed for the test," warns an April 15 state memo to testing coordinators.

"To ensure active supervision of students, it is also recommended that examiners and proctors not use electronic devices during testing sessions," the memo adds.

"We are asking teachers, as always, to practice active supervision during testing time — walking up and down aisles. Don't just sit behind your desks and do your own work," said Marco Petruzzi, chief executive of Green Dot Public Schools, which runs charter schools in the L.A. area. He added that students were warned that their exam results could be voided if electronic devices are pulled out during testing.

Most of the testing takes place between mid-April and late May.

A student at South Pasadena High reported that a proctor made a point to collect student iPads as well as cellphones in that prosperous enclave. In some places, students were warned to follow rules, but nothing beyond that.

At Alliance Collins Family College-Ready High School in Huntington Park, students must turn off electronic devices and place them in a zippered plastic bag with their names on a strip of paper inside. The bags are then stored in a briefcase and returned at the end of testing.

Any phone ringing, even after being turned in, is confiscated for a month, said Principal James Waller of Gertz-Ressler High School in University Park.

Some students at Stern Math and Science High School, located on the Cal State L.A. campus, expressed separation anxiety over their electronics, but they "are realizing that this is the way we're going to do it moving forward," said Principal Kirsten Woo.

howard.blume@latimes.com

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