California education officials have flagged 242 schools statewide, including 15 in the Sacramento area, for possible cheating concerns because their students shared test-related photos on social media.
Students posted hundreds of images from school test rooms this spring where they took high-stakes Standardized Testing and Reporting exams, which are used to evaluate academic progress.
As educators navigate an evolving online landscape, the California Department of Education has increased scrutiny of campus testing procedures and social media activity.
State officials are reviewing 16 schools in particular – none in the Sacramento region – for the most serious instances of cheating because students posted exam material that could have provided other test-takers an advantage. Among campuses facing a state investigation is Lowell High School, a high-achieving San Francisco campus often considered among the nation's elite.
Those schools are in jeopardy of losing their Academic Performance Index scores for two years, which could cost them state funds and eligibility for state performance awards.
The 15 schools in the Sacramento region received the lesser of two warnings that the state added to STAR school reports Thursday. In those cases, testing officials traced photos from testing rooms or of test booklet covers back to the schools but no images of actual exam material.
State education officials said they nonetheless took those instances seriously because any photo from a testing classroom violated rules against use of electronic devices. Test results from those campuses came Thursday with a warning in red letters: "A security breach involving social media exposure of 2013 STAR test material has been confirmed at this school site. Caution should be used when interpreting these results."
Deborah Sigman, deputy superintendent of public instruction for the Education Department's district, school and innovation branch, said she did not expect any of the 226 schools with less serious violations – including the 15 in the Sacramento area – to lose their API standing.
"Anybody that has kids or teaches kids every day knows that social media is a larger part of our lives today than it was last year," said Jonathan Raymond, superintendent of Sacramento City Unified. "There are more kids with phones and Twitter feeds."
Raymond said a Rosemont High student posted a photo of a test booklet. He said the Education Department has already determined it would not withhold test scores for the school. "They don't deem it significant," Raymond said.
Education Department spokesman Paul Hefner said test contractors and state schools officials monitor social media during and after tests looking for breaches. "When that happens, our folks make an effort to try to identify the school that the student who posted it attends," he said.
The department notifies the school, which launches an investigation and reports back to the state.
Last year a similar scandal rocked the Department of Education, delaying the release of state test scores for two weeks. That year, 12 schools were investigated after their students posted images of test questions online.
State education officials enforced new security measures to manage electronic devices in the wake of last year's security breaches, according to officials. They include random security audits before, during and after tests; webcasts and manuals on security for test examiners and coordinators; and an effort to make clear that school officials are responsible for test integrity.
An official at St. HOPE's Sacramento Charter High School learned that a student had posted an image of a test to a social media site during the exam, according to Superintendent Jim Scheible. He said the post was taken down before testing finished.
Omar Pasha, 17, a junior at Sacramento Charter High, said his teacher warned students not to post the state test online, show it to friends, take pictures of it or videotape it.
"We were just joking around saying, 'Hold on, how about I post this on Instagram?' " Pasha said, referring to the photo-sharing website.
The state test result warning mars an otherwise stellar test year for the school, which saw the largest gains on the English portion of the test among local high schools.
"Unfortunately, it's disappointing that these actions can have an impact on the other students," Scheible said. "I hope it isn't going to be an issue. We hope we took all the steps necessary."
He said the post was the only breach of test security he has heard about at the school. "We're pretty rigorous with our testing procedures and we try to have at least two people in the room. They're up walking around and monitoring the students for a variety of reasons."
At Foothill High School, a student took a picture of a test book cover and posted it on social media, said Zenobia Gerald, Twin Rivers Unified spokeswoman.
"The picture did not show any questions or answers," she said. "It didn't affect anything."
SACRAMENTO AREA SCHOOLS
Fifteen local schools were flagged after students shared state test-related photos online. Their violations were considered less severe than others under state investigation.
Source: California Department of Education
Call The Bee's Diana Lambert, (916) 321-1090. Read her Report Card blog at http://blogs.sacbee.com/report-card/. The Bee's Kristopher Rivera contribute to this report.
Editor's Note: The statewide number of schools flagged for possible rules violations has been changed from 246 to 242 after the California Department of Education revised its figures on Friday, Aug. 9, 2013.