AP Test at Severna Park High Marred by Claims of Cheating

By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 19, 2007

Some students were talking freely during the exam; others were sending text messages. But the most egregious example of cheating, students said, was the group sneaking peeks at answers in the restroom.

During the essay portion of the Advanced Placement U.S. history test at Severna Park High School, a proctor let one student go to the restroom with a drawstring bag, which other students said contained review materials. When that student returned, another asked to go to the restroom -- and took the same bag.

Now allegations of cheating and improper test supervision in one classroom could force 45 students to retake the exam.

School officials would not discuss details of last week's incident, but students who were in the classroom described an inexperienced proctor whose lax supervision allowed students to talk openly and look at questions ahead of time.

The controversy has infuriated parents and students, some of whom say they have long complained of problems with broader cheating at the school. Several also say that the cheating is partly the result of the school and county pushing more students to take AP exams to elevate Severna Park's standing.

"I'm glad they're doing the retesting as a precautionary measure," said Eric Robinson, a junior who was in the classroom. "But if I have to retake this exam and nothing good comes out of this, none of the problems solved, then I feel like, what's the point?"

The controversy began May 11 during a 10-minute break between the multiple-question section of the test and the essay portion, according to several students who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals at school.

At least one student broke the plastic wrapping around an essay portion sealed for later and took an early look at the questions. That student and a few others were seen in the restroom during the break looking through class handouts for answers to the essay questions, students said.

Some students reported this to the proctor, but he continued administering the test. Later, a student -- seen discussing the essay questions during break -- again asked to go to the restroom. The proctor told her not to take her bag but relented after she said she needed it. Another student later went to the restroom with the same bag, several students said.

At one point, the proctor left the classroom for several minutes while students were still taking the test. He put a deaf student's interpreter in charge.

School officials said they contacted the College Board, which produces the test, when they learned of the incident. School officials began their investigation Monday and sent a letter home with the 45 students in the classroom.

No disciplinary action has been taken because the College Board has not determined whether there was a problem with the administration of the test or how many students might need to retake it, schools spokesman Bob Mosier said.

Several parents are calling for action. "They need to send a message that this is not tolerated," said Leo Vidal, chairman of the school's Citizen Advisory Committee. "We want them to punish severely the people who cheated and to create an honor code at the school."

Some students, who say they're fed up with cheating at their school, have organized a schoolwide survey and petition.

"The U.S. history test was the last straw," said Peter Thompson, a junior at Severna Park who is spearheading the survey. During his three years at the school, Thompson said, fellow students have whispered answers back and forth, passed notes and even stolen tests out of teachers' desks.

"It just feels like nothing is ever done about it," he said.

He and others plan to meet with Principal James B. Hamilton on Tuesday to discuss the survey results.

Some students said they are trying to keep the tumult from distracting them from the retesting, set for Thursday. Others, such as junior Courtney Moser, expressed outrage that they could have to retake the exam alongside those accused of cheating.

At least one group has discussed printing special T-shirts to wear while retaking the exam. They'd read in big, bold letters: "I hate cheaters."

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