Despite a long list of rules and security measures, every year California officials investigate dozens of complaints of cheating on standardized tests, but a new test out this spring promises to do away with a lot of the more common problems.
For more than a decade, California students haven taken annual standardized tests the same way: they bubbled answers in pencil on Scantron sheets. Those answer sheets stayed on their desks the entire time they took the test.
With increasing pressure on teachers for students to do well, some couldn't help but give hints as they walked around the classroom. Others used erasers to fix wrong answers. Last school year, students were caught taking pictures of the tests with their cellphones to share with others.
But this year's computer test gets rid of those answer sheets and booklets. Tests will be given on computer, and officials can monitor when a student is logging in and out of a web site to take the test.
"If we see a school where a lot of students are logging in after three o’clock in the afternoon, then we probably have suspicion that it’s not the students who are logging in but perhaps teachers logging in on behalf of students, or some other adults," said Joe Willhoft, executive director of Smarter Balanced, the consortium that created the new test for California and 25 other states.
He said those changes will do away with much of the cheating that has been going on until now. But some teachers and administrators are skeptical.
"An adult still can influence a student’s answers by walking by their terminal and when the student’s making a decision about a choice they can, certainly influence, like, ‘hey did you look at answer choice D?'” said high school assistant principal and USC professor Brandon Martinez.
It's unclear how that will be prevented. The test is completed in sections and students can go back to check and change their answers within the section, according to Willhoft.
The outgoing tests had security measures, too. The paper test booklets were sealed to prevent tampering, such as teachers teaching the exact questions on the test.
Most of the rules were meant to prevent students cheating.
Willhoft said the test mostly does away with students copying each other's answers because the tests are "adaptable" — the computer picks the next question depending on how you answer the one before it.
"Essentially every student takes a unique test, so it’s really very hard for Johnny to look over Betsy’s shoulder and see how she answered the question because they actually end up taking different tests," he said.
Orange Unified School District assistant superintendent Gunn Marie Hansen said it's only a matter of time before some students try to hack the new test.
"The greatest things about our students is that they come really well prepared in terms of technology and that’s why they’re advancing in fields of science and engineering," she said. "But some of them will use their skills unfortunately, in the wrong place and time."