Severna Park High placed on probation

August 23, 2007|By Ruma Kumar | Ruma Kumar,Sun reporter

The College Board has placed a top Anne Arundel County high school on probation after a cheating scandal last spring, warning that the school will no longer be allowed to offer Advanced Placement exams if the problem reoccurs, school officials said yesterday.

In its decision this week, the College Board also banned the instructor involved in the May 11 incident at Severna Park High School from administering any future AP exams and required the school's designated AP coordinator to attend a training workshop.

The warning from the AP program's parent company put Severna Park High School -- which boasts some of the area's highest scores on college entrance exams -- in undesirable company. It is among 35 schools out of 16,000 testing sites nationally placed on probation by the College Board this year for violating test-taking procedures.

"We believe -- we hope -- that we won't see this kind of violation from them again," said Susan Landers, director of program development in the AP program for the College Board.

The College Board said an inexperienced proctor failed to follow rules banning cell phones and talking during the American history AP exam in May, when at least one student is alleged to have stolen away to a bathroom with a sealed booklet of essay questions for the Advanced Placement American history exam and, with two friends, scoured a review manual for answers.

School officials compiled a 75-page report after several students came forward with the allegations. All of the AP American history tests taken in that classroom were disqualified. Three unidentified girls were not allowed to retake the exam but kept their history class grades. The 42 other students were asked to retake the four-hour exam.

Schools spokesman Bob Mosier said that "appropriate disciplinary action" was taken against the three students involved. He would not elaborate, but according to the student handbook, penalties for cheating range from an office referral to a six-to-10-day suspension.

Discipline came too slowly for some students, who told school board members that the AP history incident was the latest example of rampant cheating that had gone unchecked. Those same students conducted a survey of 337 students that found 70 percent thought a culture of cheating existed at the school and that 81 percent thought at least a quarter or more of the students was cheating.

After the report, students and parents blamed the district's push to increase enrollment in college-track courses for creating an atmosphere in which students felt compelled to cheat to keep test scores high.

"A rigorous school environment is not what causes cheating. Integrity, or a lack thereof, is what causes cheating," schools Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell said. Later, he added in a statement, "We are confident we have rectified the issues that were present at the time."

The Severna Park incident prompted Maxwell to order a review of testing procedures in all of the district's 12 high schools. That review is continuing, Mosier said. The district has also worked to make sure that every school has an "appropriately working" honor council, which monitors academic integrity, Mosier said.

"Schools had the honor councils, but they weren't being used appropriately in some cases," he said.

Sage Snider, a Severna Park High senior and the student member on the county school board, said the superintendent still has work to do.

"I think [the school district] addressed the short-term problem, and I hope nothing this extreme happens again, but I don't think the deeper problem has been addressed: how this happened or why kids feel the pressure to cheat," she said. "There's an idea at the school that the ends justify the means. We should try to make sure they're learning for the sake of learning, and not so they can do well on these tests."

A month after the cheating scandal, the school's principal, James Hamilton, announced his retirement, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family.

The new principal, Jason Dykstra, was unavailable for comment, but said in a prepared statement:

"Dr. Maxwell has set the bar very high in terms of testing. He has made it clear that students who put in the time, effort and energy needed to excel on tests such as these should not have their work tarnished by those who choose to skirt the rules. "

ruma.kumar@baltsun.com

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