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Students cheated by posting test questions on social media

Liz Bowie
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Md. students cheated on state tests by sharing questions on Twitter.

In the latest twist on high school cheating, two Maryland 10th-graders taking a statewide English assessment posted test questions this month on Twitter.

Where students once passed notes or looked over their shoulder, today they can use Twitter, Instagram or Facebook to send a test question to a friend. And as the means of cheating have evolved, so have the efforts to stop them. The Twitter posters were caught by a testing company trolling social media with advanced software that works continuously to find key words or phrases.

Social media have been a factor in cheating on high-stake tests like the SAT and ACT for years. But the problem is now cropping up with younger students taking standardized tests, especially with the rollout of an assessment tied to more rigorous standards known as the Common Core.

"What is new here is that this is happening in K-12," said Bob Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, or FairTest, an organization that works to eliminate the misuses and flaws of standardized tests.

In Maryland, students used to be tested on their progress in math and reading with the Maryland School Assessment, a paper-and-pencil test, over the course of a week or two each spring.

This year, students in Maryland, the District of Columbia and 10 other states that have adopted the Common Core are taking the new test. A paper version is available, but many school systems are giving the test online over the course of a month. Schools with a limited numbers of computers can give the test when they have the space, rather than at a set time.

With so many variables, the possibility of breaches of test security grows.

Educational publisher Pearson, which is administering the test known as the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, has found more than 70 instances in six states of students posting testing materials on a public social media site, according to spokesman Jesse Comart.

Pearson has subcontracted the work to a test security firm that is using software to search all public social media sites such as Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and other web pages.

The company caught the two 10th-graders, who are from the same school system, according to the Maryland State Department of Education. Spokesman Bill Reinhard declined to identify the school system but said it was not in the Baltimore area.

The posts of questions were taken down within an hour of being discovered, Reinhard said. Any disciplinary actions against the students would be decided by the schools, he said.

In one case, a student posted a picture of an essay question, which included a passage from a piece of literature that was named in the tweet. According to Reinhard, that tweet was re-tweeted once and twice marked as a favorite tweet by other users — which increases the chances for others to view the post on the social media site.

In another case, a student posted a question on a passage that included the title of the piece of literature it had been taken from. It was re-tweeted once and marked as a favorite three times, according to Reinhard.

Steven Priester, a senior in Carroll County who is the student member of the state board of education, said many students put a lot of effort into their schoolwork and exams. "It is upsetting that we commit earnestly to a test," while others apparently don't, he said.

"A student really puts a bad label on students as a whole when they cheat," he said.

Schools can give the new reading and math test aligned to the Common Core standards any time during the testing window in March. Millions of students have already taken the test. A second portion of the test will be given later in the spring.

The test is being given for the first time to students in grades three through eight. High-schoolers are taking a 10th-grade English test and Algebra I, and some are taking an Algebra II test that isn't required.

Revelations that a company was searching student social media accounts sparked controversy recently in New Jersey, where some parents raised privacy concerns and worried the company was looking at private information on students.

PARCC Consortium spokesman David Connerty-Marin said "that is not the case," and testing officials defend their actions as needed to maintain the integrity of the test.

The material in the tests is copyrighted so sharing the information on social media is a violation of the copyright.

"We are not delving into people's profiles. We are looking for inappropriate sharing of the intellectual property," said Steve Addicott, vice president of Caveon, the test security subcontractor.

When a social media post is discovered by the software, the firm tries to determine where the student lives and notifies state officials. In most cases, Connerty-Marin said, the student takes down the offending post. In cases where the person who posted the information cannot be identified, Connerty-Marin said, the company can ask sites such as Twitter to take down the post.

Of the testing breaches around the country, some posts have been by adults, including a teacher who re-tweeted a test item. The teacher is from a state that isn't using PARCC.

Adam Mendelson, a spokesman for the Maryland State Education Association, the union representing most of the state's teachers, said that while Pearson has a right to be concerned about test security, teachers are worried about being targeted.

"There should be full transparency about what Pearson is monitoring, how they're monitoring it, and how any data collected is being used," Mendelson said. "We are also concerned about Pearson collecting and using any data to encourage disciplinary action against educators."

Ray Leone, the Maryland PTA president, said he doesn't fault Pearson for monitoring social media, given the potential loss of proprietary information. He noted that teachers, who monitor testing, can't put every student through a metal detector to ensure they don't have a cellphone.

"Pearson has every right to be concerned that proctoring isn't done right and cell phones are in the [room]," Leone said. "I can't imagine having to kill a test item because your question has been tweeted out."

Creating just one English question can cost as much as $15,000 because of the levels of research and review required, according to Connerty-Marin. When the testing company believes the information has been too widely disseminated, it can invalidate a test question.

Schaeffer, from FairTest, said Pearson may only be finding some instances of cheating because students also can use closed Facebook pages, email groups or texts to give their friends advance notice of test questions.

"I think we have only seen the tip of the iceberg," Schaeffer said.

PARCC results, which won't be released until next fall, will not be used in Maryland to hold elementary and middle school students back a grade, but passing the 10th-grade English test will be required for graduation in the coming years.

Also in several years, scores on the test may be used as a portion of a teacher's job evaluation.

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