Students at 242 junior and high schools across the state, including Santa Barbara High School and La Cumbre Junior High, used their cell phones last April to post photos on social media websites while taking STAR tests.

At La Cumbre High School, a student posted part of an answer sheet onto a social media site, although it did not capture test content, according to Santa Barbara Unified School District spokesperson Barbara Keyani. “These were nonetheless unacceptable violations of testing practice and district policy on conduct,” she said.

At Santa Barbara High School, one student posted a photo to Instagram of a house of playing cards she had stacked on her closed test booklet, exposing the STAR test logo. The post attracted the attention of California Department of Education (CDE) staff who patrol social media sites every 15 minutes for possible test pictures while students across the state take the test in unison. Santa Barbara High and the Santa Barbara Unified School District (SBUSD) were immediately notified once CDE identified the post’s origin. School administrators made sure the student immediately removed the post.

Santa Barbara High School Principal John Becchio said, “Really, she shouldn’t have had her phone out.” Other students were still taking the test. But Becchio added it was not a breach of security, and the school does “not have any super heightened level of concern.” The student was not disciplined, but the incident serves as an example, said Becchio. The second-year principal’s bigger concern is probably that the number of 9th graders who scored proficient or advanced in general math dropped from an already unimpressive 24 percent to 9 percent.

Scores across the district were a mixed bag. English language arts scores for 11th grade dropped 2 points from 59 to 57 percent while 9th grade general math scores jumped from 21 to 35 percent. Countywide, English scores were up and math scores down. Both dropped statewide by less than a percentage point. State superintendent Tom Torlakson spun the lack of improvement on the transition to the new Common Core State Standards that will bring with them a new testing regime.

Some SBUSD teachers confirmed that explanation, indicating they were told — perhaps not explicitly — not to worry about STAR test scores because they are being phased out. In fact, STAR tests might be suspended during the 2013-2014 school year for some students prior to the launch of the new Smarter Balanced Assessment set for July 1, 2014.

Kelly Choi, Dos Pueblos math teacher and reigning S.B. County Teacher of the Year, said, “Teachers in the school district were told to do our best, but don’t put so much energy into the test prep [for STAR testing] because … it’s not really going to be our focus,” referring to the shift to the new Smarter Balanced Assessment. Choi added the new assessment will be much better because “it’s not just a, b, c, d; it’s write this and problem-solve that.”

Superintendent David Cash said, “I didn’t send out a memo to everybody instructing them to behave in a certain manner, but I made it clear that our emphasis is transitioning to the Common Core.” He added, “The Common Core is the future. California standards are the past.”

Pending likely legislative approval, the STAR test is scheduled to be replaced with the Smarter Balanced assessment — a more in-depth, computer-based assessment that rids the ancient paper-and-pencil, multiple-choice exams — beginning in the 2014-2015 school year. Since each exam is tailored to the student taking it, the sharing of material on social media is less of a concern. Social media still poses a number of dangers when it comes to school campuses. Cash said in a statement, “We cannot stress enough to our students that the casual postings of inappropriate images on social media can have profound personal and professional consequences.”

Up the coast, a 9th grade student at Arroyo Grande High School took a picture of a cartoon in the STAR test — that did not include the question or the answer — and posted it to his Instagram account because he thought the image was funny, according to the school administration. The CDE notified the school immediately, and administrators had the student remove the post. The administration does not anticipate further action from the CDE, because of the school’s investigation and response time. In terms of rules regarding cell phone usage during STAR exams, AGHS administration said, “Cell phones are not to be out during instructional minutes.”

Noting the importance of assessment validity and reliability, California Deputy Superintendent Deb Sigman who oversees accountability issues for the CDE, said in a statement, “We redoubled our efforts to monitor these postings and alerted school districts when they occurred. These postings look to be attempts by students to gain attention among their friends, not an effort to gain an advantage on a test.” The statement also indicated that none of the postings at any of the 242 identified schools — 16 of which included postings of legible test items — affected actual results. CDE Information Officer Tina Jung added, “We took the same security protocols last year. This is nothing new.”


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