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Test for teachers uses thumbprint to deter cheaters

New ID rule upsets some

The aspiring teachers arrived armed with No. 2 pencils, government-issued identification, and their admission ticket to the test that will determine whether they qualify to teach in a Massachusetts public school.

But before they were allowed to take the test last month, the teachers were required to provide their thumbprint, to prove they were who they professed to be.

It was the latest step in the state's attempts to prevent or catch cheaters on the high-stakes exams. The new demand caught test-takers by surprise and has ignited controversy among future educators who say they resent being treated like suspects.

"I was totally thrown off when they asked me for my fingerprint," said Nicole Brunelle, 21, a senior at Salem State College, who took the test in September. "It made me more nervous than I already was. I felt they thought I was like a criminal or something."

Last year, five teachers sent substitutes to take the tests for them, under their names, said Heidi Guarino, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education. The ringers aroused suspicion when they provided identification with blurry photographs.

The state has caught 15 people in the last four years who cheated by having someone take the test for them. The total is a tiny fraction of the 35,000 people each year who take the tests. But the state has grown more concerned about the authenticity of identification amid anonymous calls tipping state officials off to possible cheaters, Guarino said. Thumbprints, she said, have become necessary for test security.

"It's not that we don't trust people, but we don't want to get people into our classrooms under false pretenses," Guarino said. "We're asking for thumbprints. We're not asking for blood."

Teachers must pass the communications and literacy skills test, as well as tests in their subject areas, to get a license and be deemed "highly qualified" under federal law. The Massachusetts Tests for Educator Licensure, or MTEL, are given 10 times a year. Teachers can take the tests as many times as necessary to pass, but those who fail can continue teaching only if their school systems apply to the state for waivers, which have become more difficult to get.

The thumbprints, which will now be required for every teacher test, would be used for comparison if someone who fails does remarkably better on a future try or if other questions arise concerning possible fraud.

New York began requiring thumbprints in 2003, followed last year by Georgia and Oklahoma. Massachusetts, Illinois, and California began requiring thumbprints this fall.

The Law School Admissions Test has required thumbprints for more than three decades to deter impostor test takers, but Canada's federal privacy commissioner recently ruled the requirement an invasion of privacy. The standard tests to get into business and medical schools also collect thumbprints from test takers.

Several aspiring teachers interviewed yesterday said they understand the need for security but feel that taking their thumbprints goes too far and invades their privacy. Already test takers must show two pieces of identification, one government-issued, and submit a photocopy of their driver's licenses. That should be sufficient to verify identity, they said.

Testing rooms were abuzz with confusion and frustration last month when proctors walked from desk to desk with inkpads and wet wipes, asking people to dab their right thumb in black ink and roll a print on the cover of their test booklet, test takers said.

Brunelle and other aspirants said they were upset that they had not been warned in advance and called the procedure distracting.

"It was just an added stress for the test," said Allison Gilgun, 21, also a senior at Salem State, who was taking the early childhood MTEL test last month for the third time. "The test is already so stressful as it is."

Gilgun, who took the test at a Lynn high school, said a man and his daughter sat in front of her and the father, a lawyer, was complaining about the invasion of privacy. He was trying the test because his daughter had failed it seven times, despite having a high GPA, Gilgun said.

Even worse, test takers said, the people administering the test could not explain why thumbprints were being taken or how long they would be kept.

"My proctor said, 'Oh, just because. I don't know why, but it's ridiculous,' " Brunelle said.

Guarino, of the Education Department, said the fingerprints would be held for an indefinite time by the testing company and drawn upon only if the state has to investigate a possible cheating case. The prints would not be used for any other purpose, she said.

Typically, the testing company flags only the answer sheets of people who have taken the test more than four times and whose scores suddenly spiked, Guarino said.

The answer sheets are then returned to the Department of Education, where a retired State Police officer conducts a handwriting analysis.

With fingerprints now added to the arsenal, she said, the department can determine with greater accuracy whether someone cheated.

"We only call on these fingerprints if there's a reason," Guarino said. "We don't want to accuse somebody who doesn't deserve to be accused."

Those found guilty of cheating are penalized on a case-by-case basis.

Some may be offered a retest, depending on the circumstances, Guarino said.

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com.

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