San Mateo Union High School District sued Educational Testing Services (ETS) and the College Entrance Examination Board on behalf of 286 students at Mills High School whose exam scores were invalidated.
According to the Superior Court complaint, the defendants invalidated the scores because the school had students sit at round tables, facing one another, to take the test.
“Defendants ETS and the College Board have chosen to cause harm to the students of Mills High School and jeopardize the academic achievement and future prospects of 286 students simply because of seating irregularities, and no evidence of any wrongdoing by any of the students,” the district says in the lawsuit.
The students took the AP exams in May, and ETS and the College Board notified the high school on July 8 that they were invalidating more than 600 AP test scores in 11 subjects.
“According to defendants ETS and the College Board, who earned about $50,000 from the Mills High School AP exams, the sole basis for invalidating over 600 AP test scores at Mills High School is because of improper seating conditions, in that students sat at round tables and facing each other. Defendants ETS and the College Board acknowledge that they have no evidence of any actual misconduct by any of the students,” according to the complaint.
The district claims there is no evidence that any cheating or other irregularities took place because of the seating arrangement. ETS and the College Board adopted a “guilty until proven innocent” position and never gave the students a chance to prove their innocence, the district says in its complaint.
The school claims that rules about seating arrangements “are buried in the lengthy AP Coordinator’s Manual with other mandatory requirements. In the section of the AP Coordinator’s Manual regarding seating arrangements, which is not even provided to the AP students, it states that failure to follow seating requirements ‘could’ result in cancellation of exam scores.”
The rules do not provide for automatic cancellation of test scores without evidence of cheating, the district claims.
“Tom Ewing, a spokesman for defendant ETS, stated publicly with respect to cheating that ‘[i]n situations like that it’s impossible to tell one way or the other.’ Mr. Ewing went on to say, ‘[t]hat’s why we had to cancel it.’ This is an admission that, notwithstanding the absence of evidence of wrongdoing, since someone might have done something wrong, everyone must suffer. This is morally and ethically unjustifiable, as well as factually incorrect as defendants have tools at their disposal that can be used to evaluate whether there has been cheating on an individual-by-individual basis. These tools are within the sole possession of defendants, but defendants refuse and continue to refuse to take any action except to offer a retest, an inadequate remedy. Defendants instead rely on technicalities to justify their sweeping conclusions,” the complaint states.
“Defendants implemented the ‘death penalty’ of invalidating the AP test scores of approximately 286 students for improper seating conditions without giving the students any warning or advance information about what constitutes appropriate seating conditions.
“The proposed solution by defendants ETS and the College Board, which is to force all 286 students to simply retake all of their AP exams, is unreasonable and highly insensitive to the stress, hard work and effort that goes into preparing for and taking an AP test, especially when the unexpected retest must take place three months after the initial exam was taken. It is not an inconsequential inconvenience for the students who took these AP tests in May to be forced to retake the AP tests three months after they believed, rightfully so, that they were done.”
The AP exams are important because they are the only way that high school students can earn college credits, the complaint states: “With college tuitions and costs skyrocketing and reaching record heights, the value of college credit becomes increasingly high.”
One student whose test scores were invalidated wrote in a blog that “this situation puts us students at an extreme disadvantage. In our perspectives and those of the public who are not affected, the invalidation of the AP scores was a harsh punishment directed at students not responsible for the violation. Although this action was not meant to be a ‘punishment,’ the circumstances that the students now have to face alone as a result would make us and others deem it so,” the complaint states.
The student wrote that it would be very difficult for the students “to review, practice, and relearn material that we have not revisited in the past two months since our school ended in May,” in the 17 days allotted before the retaking of the test.
He wrote that if ETS was already investigating the situation in May, he would have appreciated an earlier warning “so that a fair and equal second chance would be feasible.”
The student also wrote in his blog that the proctor giving directions during the exams “adhered strictly to the rules,” and that it is unfair for students to be punished for a seating arrangement they were not in charge of.
The school district adds: “If defendants ETS and the College Board want to ignore San Mateo Union High School District and ignore the lawyers, they should not ignore the students. The Mills High School students spent a full semester or year studying advanced subjects at a college level and spent countless hours preparing for difficult tests in order to obtain college credits. It is unjust to deprive these students of their test scores without any actual proof of individualized wrongdoing.
“The AP exams were heavily proctored and administered in a manner consistent with the maintenance of a secure testing environment. Defendants did not evaluate the totality of the testing environment, conducted only a perfunctory investigation of the testing environment, made no effort to determine if there was any cheating at Mills High School and made no effort to determine if the alleged ‘testing irregularities’ materially affected any score.”
Tom Ewing with ETS was not available for comment by press time.
The district seeks an order compelling ETS and the College Entrance Examination Board to grade the tests and report the results to the colleges and universities to which the students applied.
The district is represented by Nancy L. Fineman with Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy in Burlingame.
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