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Cheating on math exams at Middleton High School began years ago and focused on students sharing photographs of test questions with their peers, two letters sent to the school allege.

The letters, one purportedly from a parent and one said to be from a student, both unsigned, name no students or teachers’ classes but describe a system in which many students participated in cheating, which included the selling of test questions, first-period students sharing test questions and students calling in sick on test days and later obtaining test information.

The letters, obtained by the State Journal under the state’s Open Records Law, were sent to the school this month. Officials this month made about 250 students retake a calculus exam because of suspected cheating.

Last week, Principal Denise Herrmann sent a letter to all high school parents notifying them of the allegations made in the letters — and in two others not yet provided to the State Journal. She also told parents that the school had launched an investigation into alleged cheating.

Herrmann said in an interview Monday that she found “some validity” to the allegations in the letters because the “content of different letters and different (student) interviews are consistent.”

“We definitely see patterns between what students shared with the teachers, what students shared with us in interviews and what appears in the letters, but do we believe everything in these letters is true? No,” Herrmann said. “But we definitely think something here is alarming.”

She said information from student interviews — in which they didn’t identify students involved but said they were aware of cheating — matched the patterns of students using cellphones to take photographs of tests, and students in earlier classes sharing information about tests with other students, but not the claims test questions were sold by students.

Herrmann also said the school has noticed parents’ excusing students’ absences on exam days, but officials have little recourse other than communicating with parents about the trend because of a state law that allows students to miss up to 10 days of school with a parent excuse.

She said since the allegations have surfaced, some parents have said they don’t want to see a “witch hunt,” while others have said they hope guilty students see consequences. She said interviews thus far have resulted in secondhand information from students without personal involvement. Without names of participating students, she said, proving the allegations is unlikely.

“We’ll continue to let students know that in order for us to solve a problem, we have to have a clearer understanding of the scope of the problem,” Herrmann said. “We hope someone will come forward, but if not, we are going to make sure all future tests and exams are as fair and secure as possible.”

The school plans to conduct focus groups with students, parents and teachers in January to combat possible cheating.

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Herrmann said the anonymous letters were sent after math teachers were notified of alleged cheating on a Dec. 10 calculus exam. The teachers spoke with their students, she said, and ultimately decided to have all students retake the exam.

“I don’t know the initial information that was given to calculus teachers, but they felt strongly that cheating had taken place,” Herrmann said. “I don’t think they were sure at the very beginning how widespread this was, but they definitely thought the number was great enough that test scores that would be entered into (the electronic grading system) would most likely be invalid.”

The alleged cheating began a few years ago, according to one of the letters allegedly written by a calculus student, in freshman geometry. After students did not perform well on the first test, the letter said, first-hour students copied a subsequent test and shared with students in later classes. Test questions then allegedly became a commodity during pre-calculus, the letter said.

The letter allegedly written by a parent said students could buy pictures of test questions or join an “alliance of reciprocity” to trade one subject area’s exam questions for another.

Herrmann said the school will be looking at how students perform earlier in the day compared to students taking tests later in the day, but has not before heard of teachers noticing significant differences in test performance between class periods.

“I think if grades were significantly different, the teachers would have noticed that,” she said.

Herrmann said any students proven to be involved could face suspension, as outlined in the school’s code of conduct.

“If we have evidence that a specific student has violated our academic integrity policy, we would definitely follow through,” she said.

Herrmann said many but not all teachers have multiple versions of tests and will likely be looking at ways to make tests more random among students.

Middleton-Cross Plains superintendent Don Johnson could not be reached for comment.

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