Opponents of High-Stakes Tests Seek To Breach Exam Security

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Some opponents of high-stakes tests have turned into would-be saboteurs.

In at least three separate instances over the past six months, people apparently have sought to undermine the purpose and validity of state or district exams by sending copies of them to newspapers in the hope of having the questions published. Two leading daily newspapers, The Atlanta-Journal Constitution and The Los Angeles Times, and Substance, a monthly teacher-run publication in Chicago, have been the recipients. Only the latter actually published questions from a test.

The security breach with the greatest potential impact occurred in California, where the state-mandated test, the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition, purportedly was sent to a reporter for The Los Angeles Times.

A Chicago teacher-run publication, Substance, printed three algebra items from a city schools' pilot exam in its April issue.
--Substance, April 20, 2000.

While the newspaper neither confirmed nor denied receiving the exam, the San Antonio-based company that publishes the Stanford-9 acknowledged that the test's secrecy had been violated and said that the newspaper had received a copy.

Eugene Paslov, the president of the Psychological Corp., a division of Harcourt Educational Measurement, said that someone had stolen a copy of the exam and mailed it to the newspaper. He praised The Times for not publishing any test items. But, he added, "to invalidate a statewide test, you would have to have a major [member of the] news media release all the items. "

Substance, meanwhile, printed three algebra items from the Chicago Academic Standards Exam Pilot Form D in its April issue. The newspaper also claims to have been leaked a copy of the California test before it was administered, though it did not publish it.

Lawsuit in Chicago

The consequences for printing an exam are potentially severe. The Chicago school district is suing George N. Schmidt, the editor of Substance, for $1.3 million for publishing an entire exam last year after it was administered in a pilot test. That amount is the approximate cost of administering the test.

The district claims that Mr. Schmidt violated federal copyright law as well as the state's trade-secret law. The case is pending. ("Chicago Schools Take Aim at Teacher Newspaper," Feb. 10, 1999.)

In an interview, Mr. Schmidt said it was his First Amendment right to publish such exams, especially given what he termed their often "ridiculous" questions. "No tests with any stakes should be administered to K-12 students unless kids, teachers, families, and the general public can review the tests for content," he said.

Such comments were echoed in the letter that accompanied the copy of the Gwinnett County (Ga.) Gateway Exam that was sent to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The anonymous author also wrote that "when school officials and state politicians are obviously wrong about [the security of the test], you might want to consider questioning their assurances on [the fairness of the test]."

Securing Tests

When test scores result in decisions about student promotion, test security becomes a much bigger issue, said Monty Neill, the executive director of FairTest, a watchdog group based in Cambridge, Mass., that is highly critical of standardized testing.

One "has no way of knowing who has access to the test," Mr. Neill said. "That makes an unfair situation even more unfair." Both he and Mr. Schmidt said anecdotal evidence indicates that many teachers in Chicago have access to earlier versions of high-stakes tests, which may be reused completely or in part.

The cost of ensuring that all educators are unable to steal or even see high-stakes exams is beyond the reach of most states and districts, experts say.

Maryland and New York state, for example, have taken a number of steps to secure their exams, such as sending them to districts on the day they are to be administered.

Yet even Harcourt's Mr. Paslov acknowledges that "a dedicated saboteur could probably figure out a way to get hold of one of these [tests]."

Vol. 19, Issue 41, Pages 14-15

Published in Print: June 21, 2000, as Opponents of High-Stakes Tests Seek To Breach Exam Security
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