Pinecrest HS 02Graduation.JPG

Pinecrest High School Commencement Exercises at John W. Williams Stadium on June 4, 2016. (Photograph by Ted Fitzgerald/The Pilot)

On a Wednesday in late February, 377 Pinecrest students spent more than three hours completing the ACT college admissions test — as did most other high school juniors in North Carolina that same morning.

The next day, it only took one employee’s mishandling of those completed tests to render them null and void. The tests of another 63 Pinecrest students who took the ACT on the makeup date in March were also lost.

Pinecrest students who had been anticipating the release of their scores — whether with excitement, dread or indifference — instead got the startling revelation earlier this month that their answers had never been submitted to ACT for scoring when Moore County Schools notified them of the mishap on June 18.

After discussing “confidential personnel information” behind closed doors for 90 minutes on Tuesday, the Moore County Board of Education released a timeline surrounding what it’s calling Pinecrest’s “misadministration” of the ACT.

“Like all of you out there listening, we were shocked and dismayed to learn about the missing ACT tests at Pinecrest,” said Helena Wallin-Miller, chair of the Moore County Board of Education. “We recognize these tests carry great importance for our students, and the hardships imposed by the loss are significant to our students and parents alike. I can assure you this incident does not define Moore County Schools.”

No Criminal Intent

The district’s timeline places the brunt of the blame for the lost tests on Pinecrest’s testing coordinator. As for what happened to the tests, though, Pinecrest’s investigation was inconclusive. In an FAQ for parents and students on its website, the school says that despite a search of the school and review of video surveillance footage, the test results still haven’t been located and were most likely discarded.

Moore County Schools Police investigated the matter, but an interview with the testing coordinator did not shed light on what happened to the tests. Nor did police find criminal intent on the part of school staff.

Per ACT procedures, each high school’s testing coordinator is in charge of administering the test and returning all materials in the prescribed order to the Iowa-based testing organization.

Materials include not only test booklets and answer sheets, packaged separately, but information on things that ACT considers “irregularities” — like starting the test after 9 a.m., which Pinecrest does — students’ seating arrangements during the test, and a list of staff involved in the test’s administration.

ACT did receive the rest of those testing materials: seven boxes from the Feb. 20 test and two from the March 13 administration within a few days of the tests. The answers never arrived, though, and the mailers they should have been returned in were never scanned by FedEx. Yet it took ACT two weeks to communicate to Pinecrest that it had no record of scores from the spring tests after the school’s testing coordinator first inquired with them on May 20 about an individual student’s case.

“The ACT is managed entirely by a third-party vendor, so the communication from ACT goes directly to the school’s test coordinator,” said Kate Faw, Moore County Schools’ director for planning, accountability and research.

“It does not come through our district offices at all, it does not go to the principal and in fact they dictate that all communication happen with that test coordinator at the school level. So we aren’t necessarily in the loop as to every email that they get.”

No Notification to Schools

At most of Moore County’s public schools, including Union Pines and North Moore, the assistant principal fills that role. Pinecrest is the only school where “testing coordinator” constitutes an independent position. The school most recently filled that job, promoting an existing staff member, in January of 2017. On June 13, Moore County Schools posted the job as vacant.

Usually, ACT reports scores back to individual students within three to eight weeks of the test. Schools receive them even later. So it wasn’t until parents approached the school in late May, still waiting to receive scores, that Pinecrest had any indication that the tests were not being scored as usual.

“No notification comes back to the school that the booklets have been received or that the test sheets had not been received, so until the students came in and began to ask about it there was no reason for anyone at the school to suspect that anything was awry,” said Board of Education Vice-Chair Libby Carter.

When ACT began reporting to individual parents that it had no record of their students’ scores, the school’s testing coordinator reached out to ACT to confirm that was the case for all Pinecrest students who took the test this spring. On June 10, ACT informed Pinecrest principal Stefanie Phillips that it had never received answer sheets from either the Feb. 20 or March 13 test dates.

In their subsequent internal investigation on June 11 and 12, Phillips and Faw “determined that an individual employee was responsible for the test misadministrations.” The timeline released on Tuesday gives June 13 as the date that the district “took swift and appropriate personnel action with respect to that employee."

Re-Testing Offered

Pinecrest’s rising seniors will next have a chance to take the ACT free of charge on the Sept. 14 national administration date. Pinecrest normally only administers the test for free on the date mandated by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. Independently, students can elect to take it in July.

“The administration has already worked with 20-plus students to sign up for summer testing if they need it, and we encourage them to contact the administration as soon as possible,” said Tim Locklair, the district’s chief officer for academics and student support services. “They’re working through each individual circumstance for students who feel they need that test sooner.”

Administering the September retest to every senior who elects to take it would cost the district around $30,000. North Carolina rates high schools in part based on whether or not 95 percent of its juniors take the ACT, and this fall’s participation rate will count for Pinecrest’s 2018-2019 grade. So the schools hope that some of the 60-plus members of the senior class who did not take the ACT this spring will do it this fall.

But beyond how district staff are handling damage control following the loss of 440 ACT answer sheets, the school board had questions about preventing a similar incident from occurring in the future.

“ACT also has an online component that can be used,” Betty Wells-Brown pointed out. “Why have we not adopted that since we’ve done so many other things online?”

Locklair said that Pinecrest wouldn’t have had sufficient server capacity to administer online tests “arena” style to hundreds of students in the auxiliary gymnasium on Feb. 20. However, school staff are considering shifting to online testing in individual classrooms.

“We are looking at that as a more secure way to take care of ACT testing in the future,” he said. “In a per-room test we would have the server capacity to do online testing, so we are looking at that as a potential part of our review.”

Mechanisms for greater oversight of ACT and SAT testing, similar to the state-mandated End-of-Grade and End-of-Course tests administered in grades 3-8 and at the end of high school courses the state considers critical, are also in the works. But that has not been encouraged by those testing organizations in the past.

“Perhaps if we have a framework similar to what’s applied for the EOGs and EOCs with the state, we can do that, but we have to do that in spite of ACT’s preferences,” said Superintendent Bob Grimesey.

“We embrace the failure in this case, but we also know that we had an independent process … and they weren’t the tight protocols that we have with the EOG and EOC process,” he said. “So it’s not to dispel the responsibility, but it is to say that this is different and we’re going to have to develop new steps that previously have not been in place, nor are they in place at other schools.”

Contact Mary Kate Murphy at (910) 693-2479 or mkmurphy@thepilot.com.

(2) comments

Betsey Mitchell

Why is it not obvious that if an outside vendor administers the test that it is the outside vendor's responsibility to pay for all expenses incurred for retesting?

Donna Sargent

Betsey - the way I read this article it was a MCS employee who proctored the exam and was responsible for sending in the materials after the exams were given. I understood it was a third party vendor who scores, etc. those answer sheets. Seeing as it was a MCS employee who failed to return the answer sheets MCS is accepting the financial responsibility for retesting.

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