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Eighth-grade hackers pilfer science class exam

The two honor students are suspended. County school officials are examining their test security.

By LINDA GIBSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 15, 2000


TAMPA -- Two eighth-grade honor students at a magnet middle school hacked into their science teacher's computer recently and thought they hit the jackpot.

They found the semester's final exam in physical science, with all those questions about chemistry. With a few more keystrokes, it went out over the Internet to an unknown number of fellow students at Booker T. Washington Middle School.

Instead of acing the exam, the two students were suspended.

Cheating is nothing new among students. But Andi Ringer, Hillsborough's supervisor of middle school science education, said this is the first she has heard of it being accomplished by hacking.

"I guess this is a new glitch," she said.

John Hilderbrand, director of testing for the school district, said he thinks the break-in occurred last week. He heard about it Monday and expects to finish his investigation by Friday.

"We think only two students broke into (the computer) and according to the students they gave it to only one or two kids," said Hilderbrand. He would not identify the students.

But four or five parents have called the school about it, he said, so he suspects the test got out to more than one or two students. "Now we're hearing the whole state of Florida got it," he joked.

Ringer and Hilderbrand said the test should not have been put on the computer. "There's too many ways of getting a copy of it," Hilderbrand said.

Students could have seen the teacher's password, he said. Or they could have gotten an administrative password that overrides the teacher's. The teacher was not identified.

District policy is to keep tests secure. But how to do that with computers hasn't been spelled out to the district's 15,000 teachers.

"We need to have a common understanding of what the word "secure' means," said Hilderbrand. "It's never been written down."

The incident has prompted discussions about the need for a districtwide policy, he said.

Meanwhile, the honors science teacher at Booker T. Washington is preparing a new exam. Nobody will get to take the old one.

About 600 students from all over the county attend Washington, chosen by lottery. The school focuses on international studies, foreign languages and technology.

The two students were suspended from Washington for the rest of the semester, said David DeRuzzo, the school's assistant principal. They will attend classes at an alternative school for students who have been kicked out of their own school.

Florida law makes unauthorized access to a computer system a third-degree felony. But DeRuzzo said school administrators thought they could handle the matter without calling police.

- Linda Gibson can be reached at (813) 226-3382 or gibson@sptimes.com.

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