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State scours Twitter for sharing of MCAS test

Once, it was enough to warn students not to look at one another’s MCAS exams, or slip an answer to a friend. But now there is the Twitterverse, prompting education officials to launch a new kind of anticheating patrol.

During testing, a staff member scours the popular micro-blogging service for the MCAS hashtag, trolling for students who might be sharing pictures of answer booklets or discussing questions with other test-takers.

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“Twitter . . . is something we need to be aware of, to be vigilant about,” said JC Considine, spokesman for the state Department of ­Elementary and Secondary ­Education.

The state is on high alert for Twitter cheaters this month, as about 500,000 students take the English-language portion of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exam.

Education officials began keeping tabs on tweets last June during the science MCAS given to 76,000 students, and it caught 10 tweeting during the exam. Their tests were invalidated.

Boston high school students met the news that their tweets were being watched with a mix of amusement, outrage, and puzzlement.

Lorla Attivor, 16, a junior at Dorchester Academy, said the idea of officials monitoring Twitter was invasive. “I don’t think you have the right — your Twitter, your Instagram, your Facebook — it’s your private life,” she said. “I think if they have time to be doing that, they should find better things to do.”

But James Loreston, 16, also a sophomore at TechBoston, said he thought it was good that officials were watching for cheating. He had heard of some people tweeting about the test, he said.

Loreston said he only tweets after the test and, even then, keeps his comments general.

“What I say is, ‘It’s hard,’ or ‘It’s easy,’ or ‘I’m killing’ it,’ ” he said.

The state Education Department’s Twitter monitoring is performed by a single staff person in the student assessing unit who is focused on test security, Considine said. That employee searches for tweets sent between about 7:30 a.m. and early afternoon, when students probably are testing.

When inappropriate tweets are discovered and the student is identified, he said, the state works with the district to determine what happened.

Students are prohibited from having electronic devices during testing. A smartphone, after all, gives a student access not just to social media but also to the wealth of information on the Web. But some students bring their phones to the test anyway.

“It’s not just about tweeting,” Considine said. “A student could be texting, a student could be using the calculator . . . there are so many things you have to worry about.”

He said cheating via social media is rare — but it does happen.

“Sometimes it’s something silly, like they just drew something on their booklet and they tweeted out a photo,” he said. “They may think it’s innocent enough, but you know what, they just told us they have a cellphone during the test.”

Not every MCAS mention brings the hammer down, said Considine — and when the tweet was sent is at least as important as what it said.

“If they’re tweeting during the test window, that’s a big deal,” he said. “If it’s something afterwards, where they say, ‘Ugh, so glad MCAS is done!’ obviously that’s an innocent remark.”

The department also monitored Twitter during this year’s March retest and the February biology test, said Considine, and found no infractions.

In Boston’s public schools, test administrators require students to drop phones into plastic bags or backpacks and leave them at the front of the room.

“MCAS is one of the most important things we do,” said Mary Skipper, assistant superintendent in Boston. “We are super strict about the use of technology.”

The district has never had an incident of cheating on social media, she said.

Kaylin Thomas, 16, and her friend Tatyana Adams, 15, both sophomores at TechBoston Academy in Dorchester, who spent the day taking the test, burst into laughter at the idea of tweeting about the test.

“People are more interested in gossipy stuff than, like, school,” Adams said.

“I don’t think people would cheat on the MCAS on Twitter; nobody’s really going to be interested in your answers, ever,” Thomas said.

A quick search of the MCAS hashtag Thursday revealed a lot of grumbling about the test: “If school is canceled tomorrow I’ll assume it’s God’s way of expressing disapproval of the #MCAS.” “The #MCAS was so boring no good stories in the 8th grade.

Overall, Considine said, cheating has not spiked with the rise of social media. “These are things we’ve been aware of for several years,” he said. “This just adds a new element.”

Evan Allen can be reached at evan.allen@globe.com
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