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Fingerprinting Exercise Leads to Breach in Exam Security

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A parent's desire to preserve schoolchildren's privacy led to some supposedly secure questions from the Michigan state assessment appearing in a Detroit newspaper last week while students were taking the test.

Publication of the questions forced state education officials to explain why they asked 5th graders for their fingerprints as part of the test--an unlawful act in Michigan. And it means that they now must figure out how to score a test already under way without the publicized questions.

Items from the 5th grade science portion of the Michigan Educational Assessment Program became public after a parent tipped off The Detroit News that, as part of a hands-on science investigation, students were asked to place their fingerprints on a pretest worksheet.

Under state law, the fingerprinting of children not involved in a crime is illegal without permission from parents or a court order.

The exercise and questions were meant to be an exploration of the scientific method "designed to assess children's ability to observe phenomenon and make comparisons," said Michael R. Williamson, an assistant superintendent at the state education department.

"I want to make it very, very clear the schools are not fingerprinting children," he said.

The worksheet carrying a student's fingerprints was theirs to keep--or to be destroyed at the school, Mr. Williamson said. It was not collected by the state and "none of the information in that packet of papers is reported in any way," he said.

'Against the Law'

Still, argued Diane Barnes, the parent who alerted the Detroit newspaper, her child was illegally asked to provide what turned out to be "very clear" fingerprints.

Ms. Barnes, who lives in the Detroit suburb of Eastpointe, learned about the pretest exercise after her 5th grade son had taken part in it at his elementary school two weeks ago.

"I don't care what the school does with the fingerprints because it's against the law--period," Ms. Barnes said in an interview last week.

Because of the controversy, the science exercise will not be used again, and the security breach means it cannot count toward students' scores this year, Mr. Williamson said. "We'll have to set new [cutoff scores] on the test," he said.

Mr. Williamson said he did not know what it would cost the state to do that.

Junior Forensics

About 110,000 5th graders in 3,000 schools were taking exams in science and writing last week and this week, Mr. Williamson said.

To prepare time-consuming material in advance of taking the science test, 5th grade students were given worksheets labeled as a "fingerprint investigation journal."

They were to rub the fingers of one hand with the graphite from a pencil, put a piece of tape on the pad of each finger in turn, peel off the tape, and stick each piece of tape to a drawing of a hand on one of the journal pages.

Then they were asked to describe the pattern of ridges on their fingers, among other questions.

Later, during the administration of the science test itself, students were asked questions about characteristics of fingerprints and tools to measure the size of fingerprints.

Ms. Barnes said she was pleased to learn that the state would have to throw out those items and rescore the test. "One person can make a difference," she said.

A Libertarian candidate for the state school board this year, Ms. Barnes said the education department should have known beforehand that the exercise was unwise.

"Doesn't the department of education have legal counsel?"

The fingerprinting exercise was pilot- and field-tested and did not draw negative comments, Mr. Williamson said, nor had his department received any parent complaints late last week based on The Detroit News article.

Future Review

He said that he did not know if the fingerprint items had been reviewed by department lawyers. Some reading items have occasionally been reviewed, he said.

But Rep. Sharon L. Gire, the Democratic chairwoman of the House education committee, said that even though the intent of the questions was not sinister, the exam should be reviewed by a lawyer in the future.

Both Ms. Gire and Sen. Joanne G. Emmons, the Republican chairwoman of the Senate education committee, said they felt the fingerprinting episode was an unfortunate but innocent mistake.

"I can see where they thought this would be an easy way to do an experiment quickly with something all the kids had," Ms. Emmons said.

"They just didn't think of the implications because they're not thinking legally."

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