The roughly 65,000 seventh graders in New York City who took the statewide English test yesterday might have anticipated a challenging question or two. What they did not expect was to be stumped by the answer sheet.
But for five questions, the letters labeling the answers on the multiple-choice test did not correspond to those on the answer form. In some cases, the exam booklet directed students to choose F, G, H or J as possible answers, while the answer sheet offered only A, B, C and D as options. In other cases, the reverse was true.
While the problem was isolated to New York City, it left officials struggling to explain an embarrassing error on a test used to measure school performance under federal law and to decide which students are eligible to move to eighth grade under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's promotion rules.
Tom Dunn, a spokesman for the State Education Department, said that city officials spotted the problem early yesterday morning, before the tests were administered, and quickly alerted teachers.
City education officials said teachers were told to write a key code on the blackboard showing students to use the A, B, C and D bubbles on the answer sheet as if they were labeled F, G, H and J, and vice versa for those five questions. They said that because those instructions were given before the start of the test, students were not given additional time.
Mr. Dunn said the state saw no reason to adjust results and would continue to administer the second part of the test today. "The test is valid," he said. "To confirm this, we will review completed tests to determine whether there are any irregularities in the answer patterns." Statewide, about 225,000 students are taking the seventh-grade test.
Some parents said the glitch had caused additional stress for their already anxious children. "My daughter was hysterical," said Andrea Lella, whose daughter attends Intermediate School 7 on Staten Island. "She was convinced she messed it up and she was going to be held over."
But Ms. Lella also said her daughter had been given clear instructions on relabeling the answer choices. "The school handled it wonderfully with the instructions, but it was overwhelming," she said.
Critics of standardized testing and of Mr. Bloomberg's promotion policies immediately seized on the problem. "We are sick and tired of these tests and especially the high-stakes nature of the tests when these tests are so deeply flawed," said Jane R. Hirschmann, a leader of Time Out From Testing, a group that has battled against standardized tests. "The state needs to come forward and the city and say this test is invalid, and it will not be used."
Ms. Hirschmann also said the state education commissioner, Richard P. Mills, should be dismissed or forced to resign.
State officials have tangled repeatedly with Ms. Hirschmann and her group, and Mr. Dunn, the state spokesman, declined yesterday to respond to her comments.
Mr. Dunn said that while the exam booklet had been prepared by CTB/McGraw Hill, the test publisher, answer sheets are devised regionally.
He said that city officials had submitted the flawed answer sheet to the state for approval and that officials had not caught the error. "It's a mistake that got past both of us," he said.
City officials said yesterday that they did not receive widespread reports of confusion or complaints. "We acknowledge that a mistake was made," said Stephen Morello, a spokesman for the city's Education Department. "Given the steps that we took, to advise students through teachers, we expect that the error should not have a significant effect on student performance on the test."
City officials said they, too, would analyze the results to make sure there were no irregularities. In cases where students may have been confused by the answer sheet and instead circled answers in their test booklets, those answers will be noted, officials said.
In 2004, the city had a similar problem on a makeup test for third graders. Officials said that on that test, even with much younger children, there had been no significant impact on scores.
The answer choices on yesterday's seventh-grade test were supposed to alternate, with A, B, C and D as the choices for odd-numbered questions, and F, G, H and J as the choices for even-numbered questions, continuing on through the 28-question, 50-minute exam.
But Question 17 was not a multiple-choice item. It required a reply to be written into the exam booklet, throwing off the pattern for five questions, until Question 23, which required another write-in response. As a result, the correct pattern was restored on Question 24.
The president of the city teachers' union, Randi Weingarten, said she faulted state officials for the error. "I may be old-fashioned, but what is so wrong with having a test booklet when you have multiple choice questions where the answers are consistently A through D?" she asked. "What is going on that people seem to feel the need to confuse children instead of just making it simple?"