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Published in Print: September 6, 2000, as Minn. Extends Testing Contract Despite Scoring Mistakes

Minn. Extends Testing Contract Despite Scoring Mistakes

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Minnesota has added another year to its contract with National Computer Systems Inc. to score the state's standardized tests, despite an error by the company that mistakenly flunked nearly 8,000 students.

This summer, education officials discovered that more than 47,000 students received incorrect scores on the spring round of the state's basic-skills mathematics test, and 7,930 were told they failed when they had actually passed. Among those most seriously affected were 54 seniors wrongly denied diplomas because they received failing scores on the test, which all Minnesota high school students must pass, along with reading and writing components, to graduate.

The error came to light in July when a parent asked to see a copy of the exam his 15-year-old daughter had failed. That request by Martin Swaden of Mendota Heights set in motion an investigation that would consume thousands of hours at the state and local levels and a class action against the company responsible for the mix-up.

"My knee-jerk reaction was, 'That's it, throw the bums out,'" Education Commissioner Christine Jax said in an interview. "But then my staff showed me that there isn't really a blemish-free testing company out there."

Minnesota's three-year, $3 million contract with NCS ended June 30. But with the demand for high-stakes testing on the rise, states are shopping in a market dominated by just a handful of corporate giants that have had their own share of embarrassing glitches. ( "States Face Limited Choices In Assessment Market," March 8, 2000.)

To avoid delays in the state's testing program, state officials decided last week to stick with NCS for at least one more year. In the meantime, they will await the results of an independent audit of the company's procedures.

For NCS, based in Eden Prairie, Minn., the scoring gaffe isn't the only spot on the company's record. The contractor informed state officials in a July 20 letter that it had also mistakenly printed the wrong state average scores on the transcripts of some 61,500 5th graders who took the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment exam this year.

And in Florida this summer, education officials announced they would charge NCS $4 million against its three-year, $69.2 million contract because state tests results were delivered almost a month late. The company also turned in scores late in Michigan two years in a row.

NCS spokesman David Hakensen declined to comment on the problems in other states, but said the company has offered $1,000 in tuition reimbursement for the affected seniors in Minnesota and reimbursement to families that paid for math tutoring.

As of last week, state education officials said they were withholding roughly $300,000 from NCS's previous $3 million contract.

A remaining point of contention is whether the company should foot the bill for providing summer school to students who didn't need it. Ms. Jax has publicly insisted the company is responsible for those costs, but NCS officials say her department is partly to blame for failing to respond promptly to Mr. Swaden's request to see the exam, and for not having internal quality-control procedures for testing.

Lawsuits Filed

Mr. Hakensen also refused to comment on legal action being taken against the company by several families affected by the scoring error. At least four class- action lawsuits have been filed against NCS, the first by Frankie and Greg Kurvers of Burnsville, Minn., whose daughter, Danielle, was among the thousands of students erroneously given failing grades on the math test.

"It's nice they made the offer [to reimburse families for tutoring expenses], but they made the offer after they were sued," said Shawn M. Raiter, the St. Paul, Minn., lawyer representing the Kurvers family. "And all they're offering to do is reimburse for the tutoring, which does nothing to repay students for missed work, or parents for missed work, or students for missed opportunities. And that's all on top of the distress this caused."

Mr. Raiter said the lawsuits against NCS, all filed in Hennepin County District Court, will likely be consolidated.

Meanwhile, Ms. Jax and NCS officials were being questioned by state lawmakers in public hearings last month, and districts across the state were struggling to contain the fallout from the testing mistake. In most cases, cleanup was the only option left.

The damage was widespread for the state's largest district, the 49,000-student Minneapolis public schools. Staff members have already logged more than 400 hours redoing paperwork, meeting with families, and steering hundreds of students back onto the right track, district spokeswoman Melissa Winters said.

Forty of the school system's guidance counselors met one-on-one last month with the 538 students who were mistakenly given failing grades to help seniors and 11th graders straighten out their post- graduation plans, and to help younger students switch around this year's course selections.

As hard as it was to tell 16 seniors that the system had deprived them of diplomas they had earned, lead counselor Philip V. Cognetta said, the worst may be yet to come for students who were already struggling in school.

"I know of kids who were told they failed, and their grades just took a nose dive," Mr. Cognetta said. "What many of these students didn't need is another blow to their egos—and this was a false blow."

Vol. 20, Issue 1, Page 35

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