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Student, principal catch MCAS error

About 3,250 10th-graders benefit from discovery of math test scoring mistake

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / October 1, 2011

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Massachusetts education officials informed school districts yesterday that MCAS math scores for 70,000 10th-graders were reported incorrectly, two days after a Westwood High School principal and a Newton North High School student informed the state of an error.

Their notification, which earned the student a personal thanks from the governor, caused the state to raise the performance levels of more than 3,000 10th-graders to a higher level than previously indicated.

Mitchell Chester, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, emphasized that its testing contractor, Measured Progress, calculated the raw scores accurately but scaled them incorrectly.

The 10th-grade math exams were the only tests affected, Chester said.

“Needless to say, I’m not very happy to learn about this,’’ he said. “We need to take steps to make sure this doesn’t happen again.’’

The principal and student reported the error to the state separately, but coincidentally, both on Wednesday.

Michael Safran, 16, a Newton North junior, spotted a problem with his math score shortly after he received his results by mail earlier this week.

Safran said he was flipping through a pamphlet that accompanied the scores to see what questions he got wrong, and noticed he may have lost more credit for the incorrect answer than he should have.

Safran, who missed one question on the math test, then went to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s website to examine how the raw scores were converted to the scaled scores.

According to the chart, Safran’s score should have been converted to a perfect scaled score.

Yesterday, his father - Alan Safran, a former state deputy education commissioner - stopped by the school to tell him he had uncovered a major problem that the state was now working to fix.

“I never would have expected that my small inquiry would make such a massive difference for tons of kids across Massachusetts,’’ the teenager said.

Shortly afterward, Newton North principal Jennifer Price pulled him out of his biology class to take an important phone call: Governor Deval Patrick wanted to personally thank him.

“He told me I made a huge difference for thousands of students,’’ Safran recalled. “He said it was a great thing I did. . . . It was surreal.’’

The Westwood High principal could not be reached for comment.

The scaled scores are used to determine the placement of test-takers in four performance categories - advanced, proficient, needs improvement, and failing/warning.

The state scales the scores because different questions are used each year, creating slight variations in overall difficulty.

The error caused the state to move up the performance levels of about 3,250 10th-graders to proficient or advanced.

No student who failed the exam ended up with a revised score that bumped them into needs improvement.

No test-takers ended up with a worse performance category because of the error.

Patricia Ross, spokeswoman for Measured Progress, based in Dover, N.H., said the error occurred in the process of setting up the computer system to produce the test results.

In creating the system for this year’s data, an old scaled-score conversion chart was used as a placeholder until this year’s chart was received.

But because of a human error, the old chart had not been replaced with the new chart, Ross said.

“It would be arrogant to say mistakes don’t happen, but we hate to see errors happen,’’ Ross said.

The last time the state had to correct MCAS scaled scores was in 2002, after a Whitman-Hansen Regional High School student found a second way to answer a question correctly on the 10th-grade math exam.

That change resulted in an additional 557 students in the classes of 2003 and 2004 passing the exam.

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.


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