Error on state test slips past everyone -- except East High student

Story originally published Feb. 12, 2009

Geoffrey Stanford's teachers always tell him to read tests carefully.

Every sentence. Every word. Slow down. Make sure you understand what's being asked, and then proceed.

So while taking his state writing test last week, the East High junior saw something that didn't make sense: The word "emission" -- as in "the emission of greenhouse gases" -- was spelled "omission."

"I thought, 'Surely they're not talking about leaving out carbon dioxide altogether.' It just didn't make sense," said Stanford, 17. "It had to be a mistake."

It was.

Stanford, a linebacker and International Baccalaureate student, alerted English teacher Jennifer Fry, who alerted the district test coordinator, who alerted state education officials, who were, as you might imagine, embarrassed.

"You hate that sort of thing to happen, but it happens," said Karla Denny, spokeswoman for the State Department of Education, which created the test. "We're human."

This week, the department e-mailed test coordinators across the state to alert them to the error and provide a corrected version of the writing prompt.

Denny said the test was developed by a committee of more than 30 teachers from across the state. The five questions -- writing prompts from which students must craft persuasive essays -- were written almost two years ago and tested in 50 high schools last spring.

No one before Stanford had reported the error, Denny said.

"It amazes me. This went through all the channels, and the pilot project, and nobody caught it," said Denny, a former English teacher.

"I think it's one of those things where the people writing the test were so close to it, they probably just read over it. It looked right."

Fry, the IB English teacher, said she was disappointed to see an error on the state test, but not surprised one of her students caught it.

"They're perceptive readers," she said.

Stanford, who prefers math to literature and plans to study mechanical engineering or sports medicine, said he doesn't consider himself a fabulous proofreader.

"But when I edit my own papers, I'm a stickler for grammar and vocabulary and the correct use of words," he said. "It annoys me when I see mistakes."

He and Fry shared a laugh over the test error. It reminded them of a book the class read recently -- Thomas C. Foster's "How to Read Literature Like a Professor" -- in which Foster proclaims, "Irony trumps everything."

"What is this," Stanford said, "if not ironic?"