Published Online: May 9, 2001
Published in Print: May 9, 2001, as State Journal

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Play on Words

Washington state 10th graders taking the state's math assessment this spring are being told to skip Question 8, because of what education officials called a "malicious" prank pulled by a test-item writer.

The question presents a mileage chart and a sign for an east-west road and asks students to deduce the correct sequence of four fictional towns: Turno, Lee, Clay, and Mayri.

The trouble is, the correct answer on the multiple-choice test mimics the name of Mary Kay Letourneau, the Seattle-area teacher who gained national notoriety in 1997 when she pleaded guilty to child rape for having sex with a student—starting when he was 12. Ms. Letourneau, now serving a 7½-year prison sentence, has borne two children fathered by the student.

State officials said the play on words went undetected when the question was pilot-tested with students in 1998; a handful of students noticed it at the start of this year's assessment period, which runs April 23 to May 11.

State schools Superintendent Terry Bergeson announced April 26 that the question, one of 70 items on the test, would not be scored. In an interview, Ms. Bergeson said she asked reporters to avoid creating a distraction while many of the state's 75,000 10th graders were still taking the assessment. "You can lose the whole math test if you make a fiasco out of it," she said.

State officials plan to start screening questions for "malicious intent." So does Riverside Publishing Co., which writes the state's test items. Company President John Laramy said the question was written in 1997 by a contract employee who has not worked for the Itasca, Ill.-based subsidiary of Houghton Mifflin since 1998.

—Andrew Trotter

Vol. 20, Issue 34, Page 21

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