It wasn’t the early hour that stymied the students.
Almost 1,000 pre-medical students across the country taking the Medical College Admissions Test on Saturday morning found they could not answer the questions in front of them, no matter how hard they tried.
It wasn’t for lack of preparation. The Princeton Review estimates more than $10 million are spent annually on its short courses and study guides to brace for the medical school equivalent of the SAT. Months of cramming in organic chemistry and biology lead up to the day-long exam.
Rather, the confused students couldn’t answer the questions because of a printing error, which replaced an entire page of the test with a completely unrelated sheet.
Calls began flowing in to the exam’s administrators, the Association of American Medical Colleges, as unaware test monitors forwarded questions from concerned students. No testing centers in Minnesota were affected.
“We started getting calls from proctors when the problem was discovered,” said Jack Hackett, the associations manager for the test. “As the sun moved across the country, it went from East Coast to West Coast.”
The association prints multiple variations of the tests as a guard against cheating, Hackett said. Any given exam center will distribute two or more tests among the students.
The misplaced sheet appeared in 1,000 of the 30,000 exam books distributed for Saturday’s test. Thirty of the 600 testing centers, none located in Minnesota, received the incorrect exams.
Students taking the test plow through four sections between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. — two in the morning and two following lunch. The error occurred in the exam’s first section, concentrating on verbal reasoning. Eight questions out of the 221 on the exam were mismatched with a reading passage.
“When (medical association officials) did the final check after they came back from the printers, they looked fine,” Hackett said.
In the faulty tests, students were confused when they attempted to complete a series of questions that began on one page, but were followed on the next page by unrelated material taken from an alternate MCAT. The mistake was the result of an error in the printing process. This is the first error of its kind, Hackett said. Previous printing errors were simple slip-ups like smeared or smudged ink.
Exams undergo a content review before being sent to the printer. Additional checks are made after the tests are returned to scan for line spacing and illegible ink smudges, but not for content, Hackett said. From now on, he added, content review will be added to the post-printing run-through.
Saturday’s exams can be properly and accurately scored by discounting the incorrect passage, he said.
“It would not affect scoring, except for those cases where, in some test centers, the situation was brought to peoples’ attention and there was a lot of hubbub and delay and distractions,” he said.
Regardless, it is natural that the students might feel disadvantaged, he said.
“Other people in the room may have been distracted, disrupted or thrown off their stride; you know how it is with a high-pressure test,” he said.
Those affected are being offered several choices for compensation. Students can opt to throw out Saturday’s scores altogether with a full refund of the $160 registration fee, or swap testing dates and take the exam again in August free of charge.
Or students can choose to have a letter of explanation accompany their scores wherever they choose to apply.
Jeanette Bergeson, a fourth-year Medical School student, received a similar offer five years ago after her MCAT was disrupted by clapping and noise from a group of 12-year-old, 4-H Club children in the same building.
She said the dread of preparing for the test a second time prevented her from accepting an offer to redo the test.
She also opted against a letter on her behalf from the test’s administrators explaining the chaotic examination environment. The letter would sound like whining, she said.
Instead, Bergeson chose to let the scores stand.
“It would be incredibly distressing,” said Karen Dorn, a fourth-year medical student. “It was the worst test I ever took.”
Students prepare for two to three months for the entrance examination, Dorn said. She did, as did fourth-year medical school student Mollie Stapleton.
“It’s an emotional experience,” Dorn said.
The emphasis placed on the scores by competitive admissions offices adds to the pressure, said Sue Daniels, a fourth-year medical school student.
The University Medical School received 2,100 applications for the incoming class of 1997-1998. Only 165 were accepted.
Medical School officials spoke with the Association of American Medical Colleges administrators Tuesday morning, said Dr. Donald Robertson, the school’s associate dean for admissions.
The University received assurance from the association that the discrepancies will be resolved fairly, with little disruption to the admissions process.
Applicants who choose to take the test again in August will still qualify for the school’s admissions deadlines, which officially close May 15, Robertson said.
“I don’t think it would constitute any real, negative factor,” he said.
Grade point average and the test scores are only one factor in admissions, Robertson said. Academic performance is considered a screening tool. Recommendations and extracurricular activity play a crucial role in selecting students.