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AP exam flap baffles Chatsworth High students

Nobody has yet used the "c" word — cheating — to describe the imbroglio that has scrambled the testing schedule at Chatsworth High this month.

But another "c" word — confusion — has forestalled end-of-the-year revelry for dozens of hardworking students, who will have to retake or reschedule a series of Advanced Placement exams.

The official statement from Los Angeles Unified about the testing problems blames "an irregular pattern in conducting" an AP psychology exam last week.

Chatsworth High Principal Tim Guy's explanation was more prosaic: The school came up short a few test booklets, and no one knows how or why it happened.

That discovery invalidated scores for the students who took that psychology exam and complicated the school's year-end testing marathon by pushing other AP exams into finals week.

Guy said the psychology exam was underway when the teacher recognized the shortage. Three students were absent, so there should have been three leftover test booklets. There were none.

The testing coordinator searched through the other packets of AP subject exams. Not only did the missing booklets not turn up, but four other subjects were one exam short.

Did somebody botch the ordering? Did the Educational Testing Service send too few?

Or did a security breach on campus allow the theft of tests by someone willing to cheat?

Officials from the testing service visited the school to investigate but couldn't determine exactly what happened, Guy said. So the test results had to be scrapped. Students will have to take a new version this week or next.

And tests that were supposed to be given last week in biology, chemistry, English literature and English language were postponed. New versions will be administered this week — finals week, which means days of back-to-back exams.

"They'll be taking finals in the morning and APs in the afternoon," Guy said.

That has more than a few students worked up — particularly the hyper-studious and over-booked, who had broken down their study guides in minute-to-minute increments and thought they'd be finished by now.

"I spent an all-nighter getting ready for that test," said senior Raj Toor, who will have to return to Chatsworth High the day after he graduates to retake his AP psych exam.

"I knew I got at least a 3," Raj said. That's the minimum score needed for college credit. "I thought I was spot-on with the answers and all that."

He's troubled by rumors and gossip: that a seal was broken on a test packet, that somebody took a cellphone out, that the proctor passed out the wrong exam.

"We spent all week not knowing what happened," he said. "I wish they'd just been straight with us. Somebody screwed up. Was it a poor job of administrating, or students trying to cheat, that messed things up?

"Now I worry that our school will be a joke because of these AP shenanigans," Raj said. "I feel like nobody is going to take my diploma seriously: 'You're in the class of 2012. We know what happened at your school that year.'"

I don't think Raj and his classmates will have to don a big red "C." By the time he begins his studies at UC Santa Cruz this fall, this testing snafu will be old news to all but the students and teachers involved.

But the incident is a window into high school days of high-pitched anxiety — when a test score is a proxy for success, and college admission is considered the return on four years of nose-to-the-grindstone investment.

The Advanced Placement system of college-level courses is considered by some the new gold standard of academic excellence — a way to measure a school's performance in an era of grade inflation and SAT prep classes.

A resume crammed with AP classes is supposed to give the serious student a leg up in the tight college admissions race. Across the country, more than 2 million students took 3.7 million AP exams in 34 subjects this month.

Chatsworth High is administering 900 tests in 23 AP classes; many students are taking two or more, Guy said. "That's the culture we're in now."

The school newspaper and television station both reported on student angst about the tests, the principal said. He understands why they're upset. "They're anxious. But they're kids. They'll get over it," he said.

"I wonder sometimes if everybody's not pushing just a little too hard."

Tanira Chau has taken eight AP courses in her four years at Chatsworth and considers that "not unusual at all among my cohort."

She rides the bus for 90 minutes each day, back and forth from her home near Chinatown to Chatsworth. She's been accepted at UC Berkeley this fall. She hopes to graduate no lower than fourth in her class at commencement next week.

This year, she's taking five AP exams: psychology, U.S. history, chemistry, English language and European history. And she's frustrated by the delays.

"Now I have to review for another week. I'm very tired of studying over and over again," Chau said. "The most troubling thing is that I have to continuously worry for this."

It's tempting — with high school in the rear-view mirror — to consider such earnest frustration a tad overwrought or immature.

But success in AP classes is not just an abstract glory.

A high enough score on an AP exam can earn a student college credits, shave off a semester or more of classes and — in this era of rising tuition — save a family thousands of dollars.

That's part of what drives students like Raj Toor, who works two jobs — 35 hours a week — because his parents were both laid off. "They helped me out for 18 years," he said. "It's my turn to support the family."

This week he will be juggling work, finals and AP exams, including two that conflict with one another.

"All the stuff I crammed, I have to redo now," he said. "I'm worried I might not pass my APs. It took a lot of devotion all year."

But I think he's found a lesson that's at least as important as whatever he learned in his AP literature and psychology classes:

"You can make your plans. Then somebody screws it up. And that's just life for you."

And in the multiple-choice test of life, his solution sounds pretty good: "You just have to keep moving."

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