Scripps Ranch campus. Students can only sit at the same table if it measures at least eight feet.
  • Scripps Ranch campus. Students can only sit at the same table if it measures at least eight feet.
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Madison Dekker is returning home from a family vacation today (July 9) just as students across California get to find out how they did on their advanced placement exams. Dekker was one of 3 million students that took nearly 5 million advanced placement exams in 2017. She was tutored in calculus every morning at 6:30 a.m. before school and spent an extra few hours most evenings studying for three advancement placement courses - all on top of assigned homework.

Madison Dekker stayed up until 1:00 a.m. and created a petition.

Madison Dekker stayed up until 1:00 a.m. and created a petition.

On June 30, Dekker was in London when her boyfriend broke the news that her test scores, along with around 500 of her classmates, had been invalidated due to a strict seating policy not being enforced.

"This is a first for our district," said Michael McQuary from San Diego Unified.

"This is a first for our district," said Michael McQuary from San Diego Unified.

"My first reaction was disbelief and denial," said Dekker. "There’s no way. But [my boyfriend] sent me an email his father received, and it was true. My first thought was to check the media — nothing.

The rules for seating are strict and specific.

The rules for seating are strict and specific.

"My second thought was to spread the word. I needed to do something to get people’s attention and to get them riled up. However, this proved to be difficult considering I was 5,500 miles away. I had to break away my attention from my family time and figure out something to do to get myself involved in this unreal situation."

What Dekker did was stay up until 1:00 a.m. and create a petition where she pointed to the administrative blunder as not only unfair, but an overreaction since there was no evidence of cheating. She awoke on July 1 to 750 signatures. To date, she has more than 2500 signatures.

Advanced placement exams are taken every May by overachievers that have taken one or more of the college-level courses their high school offers. Created by the non-profit College Board in the 1950s, the exams consist of questions developed by top-tier college professors. The lure for students is that the right score can yield college credits before they even start college.

"After putting so much time and effort into these classes and preparing for these tests," said Dekker, "it's heartbreaking to not have the opportunity to pass the tests and not only validate my work but also earn college credit for these classes. This would help me graduate early, saving me thousands of dollars, or take more electives. To be specific, these test scores are worth hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars."

Dekker explained what went down in the exam room. She said after showing her student identification, she put all unapproved items (phones, notes, etc) on the other side of the room where no one could access them. Next, she looked for her assigned seating and sat quietly awaiting instructions, which included signing off on the honesty policy. Students must agree to their test scores being invalidated, even if through no fault of their own, before they are allowed to take the test.

According to the exam instructions, students can only sit at the same table if it measures at least eight feet. More than one student was seated at tables of only six feet at Scripps Ranch. Partitions were used, and students were placed in alphabetical order. The seating rules are meant to avoid the possibility of cheating.

"I honestly don’t know how else we could have tested," said Dekker. "The library space in which we tested is not a very large room so saying that we need eight-foot tables seems unrealistic and probably wouldn’t fit in the room. Our school has been under construction for the past five or six months, so space has been limited for us."

Dekker said as far as she knows the only test scores still valid are for Spanish and environmental science. This is due to smaller groups of students taking those tests thus their seating was more spread out. She said that only eight out of the original invalidated test scores were saved due to those students not having a desk partner.

The College Board is only offering two choices: re-take one or more of the nine exams in July and/or August or opt for a refund of exam fees.

Dekker is planning on retaking the exams but said she is concerned about her level of preparation. "To the College Board, it's a privilege that we have the extra weeks of studying, when in reality we have been relaxing and spending time with family. It's impractical for them to think that we have been studying this material for the time we have been on summer vacation."

How many of the students are re-taking the tests? "Due to summer jobs, previously scheduled family vacations, and graduates already moving out of state, there have been relatively few students to sign up for the re-takes. The last number I heard was about 100."

The San Diego Unified school board voted on July 6 to file a temporary restraining order on the College Board's decision to invalidate the test scores. I asked Dekker if this action offers her any hope. She said, "I want to be hopeful, but hope won’t get me my scores. The legal action could take years to have significant results, but I’ll probably be graduated from college by the time that happens."

Dekker said that a classmate that cheated on an advanced placement exam likely led to the investigation that ultimately invalidated the test scores. "I was at first incredibly angry with that student for ruining everyone's chances to get our scores, but I began to realize that it wasn’t 100 percent his fault. Although, he was a catalyst that set off this whole thing, the administration is really at fault here. Some people are starting to forget that with the legal action against the College Board happening. If there is anyone to blame, it is our counselors for not following instructions, our principal for signing a document stating our setup was perfectly legitimate, and our superintendent for not requiring proctors to be retrained with the new testing standards that the College Board has put up a couple years ago. However, I want to emphasize that I personally do not care what happens to the counselors, the principal, or the superintendent. Their fate means absolutely nothing to me. I just want my scores."

I was unsuccessful in getting comment from someone at the College Board, but Michael McQuary from the San Diego Unified school board answered a couple questions. Has this ever happened before in San Diego on this large of a scale? "It is my understanding that this is a first for our district and that similar large scale actions like this one have happened in other school districts."

McQuary clarified that while the disallowed scores were from a designated test site at Scripps Ranch High, other tests taken at other sites at Scripps Ranch and off-campus were not disallowed.

What's the next step? "During our special meeting held [on July 6], the board authorized our legal office to push back. So our next step is to prepare for our day in court, where we will defend the veracity of the testing process that was implemented and request the validation of all student test scores." He said they are also making preparations to assist students to retake all disallowed tests.

News reports dating back to 2009 tell of hundreds of students in other cities having their test scores invalidated due to seating irregularities, unqualified supervisors, test distribution errors, extra time given, lost tests, and students left unattended.

A statement from board vice president Kevin Beiser, posted on the school's website on June 30, read, "After consulting with our legal department about possible recourse we explored previous case law which has demonstrated that other districts' efforts to embargo such actions have failed in the courts." In light of this, it seems unlikely that Scripps Ranch students or the hundreds of others in three other schools that had their test scores invalidated in 2017 will see any relief from the College Board.

Dekker is headed to San Diego State University this fall to major in pre-business administration with a specialty in human resources.

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Julie Stalmer July 10, 2017 @ 1:21 p.m.

After the article was handed in:

Douglas Christiansen board of trustees chair for the College Board was unable to comment because he was out of the country but forwarded me onto Jaslee Carayol. Carayol said on July 10, "A test security incident prompted the investigation that revealed massive seating violations, and when a high school does not comply with the College Board’s test administration requirements, an indeterminate number of students can gain an unfair advantage. For that reason, while we take the decision to cancel scores very seriously, there is no alternative in such situations."

They are offering all affected Scripps High students two fee-free testing opportunities.


Visduh July 10, 2017 @ 5:30 p.m.

Describing this as "massive seating violations" is a load of crap. The seating that was used there was what many or most schools used up until about two years ago. (I worked a number of years up to about four years ago as an AP Test proctor at one of the high schools in No County. The dividers between students sharing a table did a great job in inhibiting any temptation to try to look across and cheat.)

This is a power play by the testing cabal that is intended to send a signal to every school in the nation. "Do it precisely our way, or we will punish you and your students heavily." Never mind that the punishment does not fit the crime, if you can call it a "crime." Most schools take the security of AP tests very seriously, and I've never seen a time when anyone made any attempt to cheat. I can't be sure, but I suspect that some schools, such as some of the costly private ones, do cheat, and involve many staff members in a code of silence.

The school actually reported the seating "violation" itself, and now its students suffer. No, what happened there was a minor, technical violation. The school and the district should get a major whack on the wrist, a good finger shaking in the face, and then the incident should be treated as over.

While I'm a harsh critic of the San Diego city schools, in this case I have to point out that any school in the county could have similarly run afoul of the College Board and ETS. I hope the district prevails in court.


Julie Stalmer July 11, 2017 @ 8:23 a.m.

As I understand it, they make the school do a seating chart. I'm not sure how schools keep making these same mistakes when giving the test. I'm not sure why they don't like partitions - maybe it has something to do with whoever is supervising can't supervise as well? Bottom line, whoever was in charge didn't follow the rules set down. I agree that students shouldn't have to suffer the brunt of it all. They did what they were told.


monaghan July 10, 2017 @ 10:11 p.m.

Spoken like a true hired-gun proctor of Advanced Placement Tests. If the rules for AP testing are not standardized nationwide, Visduh, the entire national AP process is thrown into disarray and AP's lucrative national business and cred are shot. And then what? The sky would fall, Chicken-Likken.

Scripps Ranch High School, testing staff, the Board and Superintendent are clearly responsible for this mess and should pay costs for all related fallout of Scripps kids having to re-take those AP exams. San Diego Unified suing the College Board and ETS is ridiculous: the District is lucky if it avoids being sued itself.

While we're at it, let's talk about the debatable educational value of AP courses. With rare exceptions, AP courses are Drill and Kill exercises and the antithesis of a full year's thoughtful reading, discussion and writing with an engaged teacher of a subject to which he or she is devoted. AP classes are not democratically open to all comers: participation/selection process varies widely from school to school. AP classes come with "weighted" grades for those who pass with a score of 3 to 5 -- advantage AP takers who get a higher grade-point average at graduation than peers who took regular or honors classes. And higher GPA is essential in the college admissions rat-race.

AP learning (aka cramming) ends in early May when the AP exam is given, rather than mid-June when the school's academic year ends. Each test costs in the neighborhood of $100 -- a fortune for many public school kids -- and in recent years some school districts have subsidized costs for needy students. Finally, in the last decade-plus, schools have loaded up on AP offerings as a false face of general excellence, per circulation-enhancing rankings from U.S. News & World Report, rather than hone and develop their own teachers, standards and academic strengths.


Julie Stalmer July 11, 2017 @ 8:29 a.m.

You make several interesting points. Do AP courses actually have the same benefit as spending quality time with a more learned professor that is teaching a subject he or she is passionate about?

I understand why the students are freaking out about having to retake all those tests. But they might surprise themselves and do better the second time around. All that info should still be in their heads. If not, than what is the point of the classes or the test? Learning is a lifelong pursuit and if we have students learning only for testing or a grade, we are missing the point of learning bigtime.


monaghan July 11, 2017 @ 4:15 p.m.

You are quite right, Julie: motivated and disciplined students who have prepared completely for an AP test -- or any test -- ought to do just fine. And no, in practice proliferating pre-fab AP courses do not measure up to the quality of the rare great high school class taught over a year by a person who has studied and loved his or her subject over a professional lifetime.

San Diego Unified School District owes Scripps Ranch High students -- not the lone cheater, of course -- for the cost of the invalidated tests; for as many official District explanations as it takes to the colleges to which students have applied, explaining what happened and whose responsibility it was (a clear mea culpa from the District;) and an official request from the SDUSD for all colleges' forbearance from penalizing these students for lateness and proof of same in writing.

San Diego Unified also could pay for all AP test re-dos. This would put a human face on our local school system and it would be a lot cheaper than paying its lawyers to sue the College Board.


Visduh July 11, 2017 @ 4:43 p.m.

For you to make such sweeping generalizations of all the AP courses, I assume you have close knowledge of them, probably as an instructor. Does that imply you have taught all across the spectrum of classes, from hard science through math to social science and on to the humanities, including foreign languages? Come on monahan, fess up.

As to my being a "hired gun", I was asked by a high school, one where I had long worked from time to time as a substitute teacher, to help out. While AP proctoring, I was paid the usual substitute teacher daily stipend. That was the princely sum of about $100. Were I some sort of hired gun, I'd be asking and getting more like $1000 a day.

Yes, the rules are strict for a reason, but I don't see standardization as a particular virtue. What they need is security and discipline. While the school "shoulda" had the right kind of seating, a minor deviation from that was not sufficient cause to invalidate 800 tests, affecting over 500 students.


BriannaTarth July 11, 2017 @ 9:58 p.m.

While some might praise this young woman for her "initiative" in creating her petition, I believe she reveals her completely selfish motives when she says she doesn't care about what happens to anyone and all she cares about is her scores. If she was confident in her scholarly achievements, she would understand that any shadow in the arrangement of the testing environment tarnishes all the tests taken. Her school administrators let her down, but God forbid she be asked to re-establish her bonafides. Your school broke the rules, so woman-up and retake, but don't whine about family trips to exotic locales distracting you from demonstrating your prowess. Ugh.


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