Mississippi Department of Education headquarters in Jackson. Credit: Mississippi Today

An error on the part of a testing company that scored nearly 1,000 Mississippi seniors’ U.S. History tests this year could have resulted in some students receiving diplomas who should not have graduated and vice versa.

This year, the testing window for U.S. History, a state test produced by Bloomington, Minn-based NCS Pearson Inc. and required for graduation, was at the beginning of May. Although the test is typically taken in a student’s junior year, students have several re-testing opportunities in their senior year.

Seniors who needed the U.S. History test to graduate were told to take the test by May 6 in order to receive an expedited score. Shortly after the testing window, Pearson delivered a data file to the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) containing the scores of around 13,000 students—951 of whom were seniors—according to state education officials. MDE then sent the scores for the 951 seniors to schools on May 12 so they could be factored in to students’ graduation files.

Weeks later, however, officials with Pearson notified the Mississippi Department of Education of an error in scoring all 13,000 students’ tests.

“We’ve recently been notified several weeks later (by Pearson) that they used the incorrect conversion table to score the assessment,” Paula Vanderford, chief of research and development at the state education department, said. “ … By Pearson using the incorrect table, what it did is it gave some students a slightly higher score than they should’ve received, while it gave other students a slightly lower score than what they should’ve received.”

Vanderford said it is not currently clear how many students this affects or the impact statewide.

“It’s more difficult to determine the impact strictly because it’s not just the students at the cut score because we have all these other options that students can use to graduate in lieu of passing the test,” Vanderford explained. “So a scale score is very important for use to a student in a concordance table or composite table, so that’s why it’s so difficult to determine the impact immediately.”

Pearson spokesperson Laura Howe said the company apologizes and “is working with the Mississippi Department of Education to correct the scores and resolve this situation as soon as possible.”

Pearson must submit the remaining scores for all 27,000 students who took the U.S. History test in the spring by June 23, according to the contract.

As a result, the State Board of Education on Friday voted to terminate the state’s 10-year contract with Pearson Assessments based on a “pattern of poor performance,” according to Vanderford. The board then approved a one-year emergency contract with Questar to administer the tests previously done by Pearson for next school year.

The testing company had been tasked with administering 5th and 8th grade science, Biology I, and U.S. History tests for Mississippi since 2000.

Rosemary Aultman, State Board of Education chair Credit: Mississippi Dept. of Education

“The decisions made today are in keeping with the board’s duty to act in the best interest of students. Continued errors that directly impact students are unacceptable,” said Rosemary Aultman, board chairwoman.

“We are disappointed by today’s board decision but stand ready to assist the state in any way possible,” Howe said.

According to MDE, the most recent error is the third in recent years on the part of the testing company. In 2012, answer choices for one question on the Biology I test were transposed, causing 126 students to receive failing scores. The second error took place in 2015, when online testing was interrupted for 5th and 8th grade science, according to the Mississippi Department of Education.

The total cost of Pearson’s 10-year contract was about $28 million.

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Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.