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Petaluma High School warned of social media use during STAR tests

Published: Sunday, August 18, 2013 at 10:16 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, August 18, 2013 at 10:16 a.m.

Two Sonoma County schools have been singled out for security breaches during spring 2013 standardized testing season, according to the California Department of Education.

At both Petaluma and Elsie Allen high schools “a security breach involving social media exposure of 2013 STAR test materials has been confirmed.”

Results from both campuses were issued with a warning, but it remains unclear what, if any, sanctions may be levied.

“Caution should be used when interpreting these results,” appears in red across both schools' California Standards Test scores.

The state released the latest round of test scores to the public Aug. 8., identifying 242 schools where social media postings occurred during administration of the test. Neither the Petaluma or Elsie Allen incident were among the 16 cases that included postings of test answers or questions.

“These postings look to be attempts by students to gain attention among their friends, not an effort to gain advantage on a test,” Deb Sigman, deputy superintendent of the California Department of Education, said in a statement.

Petaluma Superintendent Steve Bolman said a Petaluma High School student apparently posted a “blurry” photo on a social network site.

“It wasn't anything for cheating purposes, just to say what she was doing,” he said.

Bolman described security during testing as “pretty tight,” adding that the incident has prompted officials to take a new look at how exams are administered.

“Any breach is serious and we'll continue to look” at district protocols, he said. “There are safeguards taken but in this day of everyone having a camera on them ...”

Last year, 216 schools were involved in security breaches, 12 of which included postings of legible test questions or answers. Breaches were discovered under a new system of monitoring launched last year.

During the window of time when tests can be administered across the state, the state Department of Education, via the nonprofit group Educational Testing Service, monitors social media websites including Facebook and Instagram. The search is refreshed every 15 minutes and schools are immediately alerted if state officials believe a breach has occurred.

While both Petaluma and Elsie Allen were among the less serious offenders on the state list, it remains unclear how the campuses will be affected. Penalties can include invalidating the school's state Academic Performance Index, which could result in federal sanctions.

But what such a penalty would mean as the current Standardized Testing and Reporting system appears heading for the dustbin, is unclear. Schools across Sonoma County are already beginning to implement the new Common Core curriculum and assessment that is expected to have its own system of sanctions, apart from what has existed for years under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

“We don't know what the impact will be,” Elsie Allen Principal Mary Gail Stablein of the incident.

Despite the likely elimination of the current testing and sanction system, officials remain bound to adhere to its requirements, said Elsie Allen Vice Principal Andy Lieberman.

“It's not on its way out until all the way up to the state level ... somebody says 'We are not paying attention to that anymore.'”

It was unclear when officials at Petaluma or Elsie Allen would find out if a penalty would be levied at either school.

“The state is continuing its investigation. Our expectation is that nothing is going to happen with our API,” Bolman said.

(Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. She can be reached at 526-8671, kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @benefield.)

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