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.
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.
"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.
"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.