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Concern over ELA test’s integrity after images posted on Facebook

Roger Tilles, center, who represents Long Island on

Roger Tilles, center, who represents Long Island on the state Board of Regents, listens during the policymaking board's meeting at the state Education Department in Albany on Monday, March 12, 2018. Credit: Hans Pennink

State education leaders are concerned about the integrity of the state fifth-grade English Language Arts exam after images of multiple pages of the test were posted on a West Babylon parent Facebook page, Regent Roger Tilles said.

“We’re as concerned as anybody,” he said of the state Board of Regents in an interview.

The state Education Department is investigating the breach — which occurred Wednesday, the first day the paper-based ELA exams were given to hundreds of thousands of third- through eighth-graders on Long Island and across the state.

While the majority of students completed the paper-based exams last week, the window for computer-based ELA testing continues through Tuesday. The same questions from the paper-based exams are on the computer-based tests, according to the Education Department, though there are multiple versions of each assessment.

“The security and integrity of New York State assessments is of utmost importance,” department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis said in an email. “The Department’s policy, however, is to not comment on allegations of testing irregularities that may have been received, unless they are verified through investigation.”

West Babylon Superintendent Yiendhy Farrelly was alerted Wednesday morning to a post on a parent Facebook page, which included images of several pages of the fifth-grade ELA exam being given that day, according to a statement from the district. Farrelly, following protocol, immediately contacted both the Education Department and Western Suffolk BOCES about the testing breach.

At the department’s request, Farrelly contacted the parent, who then removed the post, according to the West Babylon district.

It was unclear if the Facebook page in question was an individual’s page or the page of a parent group.

Farrelly was unaware of how the information was obtained, but will assist the department with its investigation, according to the district statement.

The images that show the questions, however, have reportedly been shared among an unknown number of Facebook users.

Jeanette Deutermann, a Bellmore parent of two and founder of the Long Island Opt Out network, previously told Newsday she had seen the pages, but didn’t know where they originated and didn’t plan to post the images for fear of potential legal repercussions.

The Education Department, as part of its investigation, will need to decide “based on the gravity, the seriousness of the breach, what if anything would happen to the actual test results,” said Douglas Gerhardt, partner and attorney at the law firm Harris Beach, whose clients include education institutions statewide. The test or portions of it could be deemed invalid, he said.

Gerhardt, Tilles and officials from two state education groups said they could not recall a time when such a thing happened with the exams given in grades three through eight, though there have been issues of test questions’ exposure in the past with the state Regents exams.

“I think we’re probably talking about such a small percentage of people where that, I would hope, things still go as planned,” Charles Dedrick, executive director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, said of the West Babylon incident.

The Education Department’s Test Security Unit, which was created in 2012, also will look into the source of the breach, the state agency said.

“From what I understand, it could put somebody in legal difficulty if they find out who did it,” Tilles said. “I think they will. They have ways of finding that out.”

State regulations regarding test security are fairly strict, with the exams required to be sealed and locked up until the day of administration, Dedrick said. Even a broken seal can be deemed a security breach.

Certified exam proctors, which can include school administrators, teachers and teaching assistants, are trained in testing protocol, such as rules banning students from having any phones, cameras or other devices while the exam is being given, he said.

If a student took the picture or pictures, there may not be harsh consequences for the student, but there could be for any staff member who allowed them to keep their device, Dedrick said.

There is no rule banning proctors from having devices such as cellphones while tests are being given, he said, but if an individual who is certified as an educator took and shared the photos, “there could be some serious repercussions.”

If misconduct occurred, the Test Security Unit could take corrective and disciplinary action.

Dedrick gave the district credit for its handling of the situation.

“It sounds to me like it may have been nipped in the bud,” he said. “I hope so.”

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