Maryland education department officials said they will be double-checking tens of thousands of government high school assessment exams for errors this summer, after a glitch caused students from around the state to erroneously fail the exam last year.
About two dozen students who left the first question blank on the exam were affected. The omission caused all of the answers on students' scanned sheets to shift up one spot, and all answers to be marked wrong. As a result, 27 students in seven districts failed the exam; the most were in Baltimore City.
Sandy Summers said that when her son was told the first week of the school year that he had failed the government HSA exam, her first thought was: "I don't think so."
The A-student, who just finished his sophomore year at Baltimore School for the Arts, is accomplished, and his teacher had prepared the class using previous exam questions.
Summers flagged the error for state officials and pressed them on whether it might be more widespread. She said she was surprised to find she was treated like a nuisance.
"I felt like the whole testing process was at stake for every single student," Summers said. "I wasn't worried about him. I worry about the students hanging by their fingernails over these tests. I worry about them graduating from high school. It matters a great deal to a lot of people whether this test is accurate."
State education officials said that in the past year, they have ordered its vendor to scan more than 50,000 exams for any errors since Summers brought it to their attention.
Officials said they believed the glitch resulted from a coding error and the recent reintroduction of the government HSA. It was eliminated in 2012, but the Maryland General Assembly ordered that it be restored in 2013 as a graduation requirement.
They said the quick turnaround in getting the exam back in the rotation could have also contributed to the programming error.
Unlike other HSAs, students don't have to pass the government exam to graduate. However, it can count toward a composite score used to determine graduation eligibility. Officials said the error didn't prevent any student from graduating.
They pointed out that in the past two years, 107,000 social studies tests have been administered, and only 27 errors were found.
But the most recent exam, which students took in May, will undergo the same review by the state's vendor, Educational Testing Service.
"We pretty much have to," said Henry Johnson, who oversees assessments for the Maryland State Department of Education. "In all fairness to the students, we have to make sure that the information they're putting on the test is being scored accurately."
Summers offered cautious praise of the state for taking extra measures to prevent the problem from happening again. She said she would like to see the state crowd-source its quality control by reaching out to high-performing students who failed the test.
"I think that's great, but they should make an attempt to be more transparent," she said. "Without an A-student and a parent breathing down their necks, this may not have been uncovered."