Printing Goof Nullifies U.S. Reading Exam

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A printing error by a contractor has invalidated the reading test results of U.S. students on a prominent international exam, federal education officials said yesterday.

Since 2000, the Program for International Student Assessment has been administered every three years to provide a snapshot of how 15-year-olds around the world stack up in reading, math and science. Results from the 2006 tests, which focused primarily on science, are scheduled to be released Dec. 4.

Mark S. Schneider, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics in the Education Department said yesterday that the error is an embarrassment and that the U.S. reading performance portion had to be tossed out. U.S. scores in science and math will be released.

The contractor, North Carolina-based RTI International, an independent nonprofit research institute that had a $4 million deal for the project, apologized for the mistake and has stepped up its review process. The contractor has compensated the National Center for Education Statistics $500,000 by a combination of reducing its fee and doing additional work to determine the impact of the error, RTI spokesman Patrick Gibbons said. "This was clearly RTI's error," he added.

Schneider said that in the test, many reading questions directed students to a story or passage on the "opposite page," a system that assumed the test began on the inside front cover. But when the books were printed, the color on the cover bled through the first sheet. As a result, the printer left the page inside the cover blank and started the exam on the first right-hand page.

For example, questions about two essays about graffiti instructed students to look at the "opposite page" when the essays appeared on the previous page.

Schneider said NCES officials had reviewed a computer file of the exam before it was printed. A printed copy was sent to NCES in fall 2006, but the error wasn't noticed until the following summer, when the results were being analyzed.

The Program for International Student Assessment, which is sponsored by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, measures how students apply reading, math and science knowledge in real-world situations. More than 270,000 students worldwide participated in 2003. In the United States, about 5,600 teenagers took the assessment last year, but not all exams included reading questions.

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