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Students sharing FCAT clues via social media

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CLEARWATER — For 17 years, Florida schools have spent months preparing students to tackle every possible question on the high-stakes Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. But those looking for a heads-up on the FCAT writing portion of the test only needed to peruse trending Twitter hashtags.

This year the “testing rules acknowledgment” signed by students prior to the Feb. 25 and 26 writing test was clarified to explain that “discussing the prompt,” or the writing topic, includes “any type of electronic communication, such as texting, emailing, or posting online, for example, on websites like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram,” said Tiffany Cowie, public information officer for the Florida Department of Education.

That, however, didn’t stop hundreds of fourth-, eighth- and 10th-grade test takers across the state, as well as some parents, from sharing comments about the writing exam on the Internet. On the day students began taking the tests, numerous tweets, Facebook updates and even pictures of the test circulated on the Internet, many explicitly talking about the prompt or linking to homemade pictures poking fun at student responses.

Sharing information could cause the state education officials to invalidate test results.

The Pinellas County school district does not record how many FCATs have been invalidated or why, and the state doesn’t record invalidations by county or reason.

While the most recent writing test has not been recorded yet, in spring 2013, 137 fourth-grade writing tests, 178 eighth-grade and 320 10th-grade tests were invalidated statewide. In spring 2012, 282 fourth-grade writing tests, 276 eighth-grade tests and 313 10th-grade tests were thrown out.

“Today I wrote about how worthy you are to be on the dollar bill. It was a grad req. #FCATWrites,” said one tweet from a 16-year-old student.

“Today I took my 10thGrade #FCATwrites. The prompt said choose one person u would like to interview & explain why. I choose (Ellen DeGeneres),” said another student’s tweet.

Depending on the student’s privacy setting, many of the security-breaching tweets, Instagram posts and Facebook updates can be found with a quick Google search, proving the need for more security, said Steve Addicott, vice president of Caveon Test Security.

Caveon analyzes FCAT tests for indicators of cheating, but anticipates that more school districts soon will cross into “Web monitoring” for everything from students purchasing copies of tests, soliciting other students to take tests for them, or simply having online conversations that “cross the line.”

“It’s a challenge K-12 systems are going to have to contend with because the stakes are getting higher, tests are longer and teachers evaluations are tied to scores,” Addicott said. “With all of the potential risks, it’s disconcerting.”

The FCAT will be replaced in 2015 by an exam that aligns to nationwide Common Core state standards, known in Florida as the “Florida Standards.” The replacement has yet to be announced, but all tests will be administered on a computer, which will add several weeks to the amount of time students spend getting tested. The test also could be one of several options that will be administered across multiple states and time zones, opening up the door for more cheating.

Students’ performance on the FCAT, and its planned replacement, play a large part in their teachers’ performance evaluations, which are tied to pay, and the state’s equation for school A to F grades, which impacts everything from neighborhood property values to whether a school is closed for poor performance. Now, there are more incentives and opportunities to cheat than ever before, Addicott said.

“To accommodate all the students, test windows could last up to three months in some states,” Addicott said. “Whether it’s with us, or taking the time to go online and fish for content on their own, school systems are going to have to do more online monitoring to minimize the threat.”

The guidelines and procedures for state tests are set by the state, and teachers and school-based staff are required to read and sign the FCAT Test Administration manuals before administering each test. Teachers are not expected to monitor the social media accounts of students for cheating, school district spokeswoman Melanie Marquez Parra said.

“Students have always shared their recollection of test questions and prompts, students are going to talk about what they just did,” Proud said. “But obviously if it becomes an issue there are more steps that need to be taken so students can’t get online right away during testing times.”

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