CHAPEL HILL — A statewide test introduced this year to measure teacher performance was marred by students who shared questions with each other and on social media.
The Measures of Student Learning exams were given for core subjects from grades 6 to 12. The tests served as 15 percent of students’ final grades, and will be used to assess teachers’ job performances.
Chapel Hill High junior Frances Reuland stumbled on the word “rhetorical” several times during her MSL exams and didn’t know what it meant.
After she took the English test, “my friends would come up to me and ask, ‘What should I study?’” Reuland said. “I’d rather they just didn’t ask.”
Unlike with other standardized tests, there was only one version per subject of each MSL exam statewide. Instead of one testing date, students in different classrooms and districts took the tests over three weeks.
Those factors let test contents leak out, students and teachers said.
“I really didn’t want to say anything, and I heard other people sharing titles of the passages to read,” Reuland said.
One of her best friends asked her what poetry was used on the reading comprehension passages of the English test.
“They wanted to know the names of passages. I couldn’t do that, it was just too much.”
Reuland told her friend that she’d want to know what “rhetorical” meant.
Carrboro High School teacher Mary Beth Barker sent a letter to school officials in which she wrote, “many students arrived at school already having been exposed to everything that would be on the test they were about to take.”
“Students approached us with questions about obscure texts and terms – questions that we did not understand until we saw the test ourselves for the first time,” Barker wrote. “These students clearly had been prepped for the exact questions they were about to see.”
One teacher pointed out that students did not have to sign an honor pledge before taking the test (as they do for the SATs), so sharing study hints with each other was not, technically, unethical.
“I never saw any evidence that they benefited by taking it later,” said Diane Villwock, executive director of testing and program evaluation for the school district. She compared test scores from Monday against those from later in the week.
Villwock said there was no overall pattern, and that teacher criticisms against the test had been forwarded to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.
The problems surfaced at a recent Chapel Hill-Carrboro Board of Education meeting, where East Chapel Hill High School teacher Brian Link spoke.
“It is unfortunate to have to report that after four days of administering this, we have had rampant cheating, we have had tests that have had inaccurate information, and we have had tests that are culturally insensitive,” Link told the board.
“In fact on the world history examination there were zero questions about Africa, zero questions about South America, zero questions about China. And in fact, the only questions about the Middle East were in reference to terrorism and controlling oil,” Link said.
Superintendent Tom Forcella discussed with board members the possibility of changing the grading curve for tests, or discounting questions that were found to be problematic.
Forcella and representatives at the N.C. Department of Public Instruction said the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school district was not the only one that experienced problems with MSLs.
Michael Gilbert, a public information officer with Orange County Schools, said his district had not received notice of cheating or test content sharing.
“Some of the staff did feel that the math sections were misaligned (to the curriculum),” Gilbert said.
“It was a learning experience for us, as it was for all districts in the state,” said Chip Sudderth, public information director for Durham County schools. “We have not had any reports of widespread cheating behavior.”
Sara Clark, a communications specialist with the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, issued a response that said, “While it is unfortunate that students share test content, this behavior is not limited to MSLs. Students also share items on classroom tests and teachers teaching the same course multiple periods must contend with this unless they make multiple versions of their classroom assessments.”
Clark said teacher concerns about test questions were being taken seriously and reviewed for next year. “We appreciate the feedback and take that input very seriously,” her statement said. “The concerns are investigated by content specialists to determine whether the concern is valid.
Villwock said the department will likely consider giving future MSL exams on the same day. That alone would minimize sharing exam contents.
The sophomore who did not want his name publishe said he took the civics, chemistry and pre-calculus exams early in the week. He said he didn’t talk about his tests, but that many students are under pressure to succeed by any means necessary.
“It wasn’t so much sharing answers, as talking to other kids about what to study,” he said. “It’s still manipulating the system.”
Justin Laatz, a junior at Carrboro High School, said the tests he took were more difficult than their predecessor End-of-Course exams, but teachers did a good job preparing students.
“The EOCs, everybody takes it on the same day. I think that is a better way of avoiding cheating. If they offered different versions of the same test, people would view that as being unfair.”