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Trial court officials admit they accidentally shredded promotional exams taken by probation officers before they could be graded, dealing a second embarrassing setback to the agency's efforts to create a fair hiring and promotion system after years of political favoritism.

Earlier this year, 55 percent of probation employees failed a test to win promotion to assistant chief probation officer, a failure rate so high that some questioned whether the test itself was flawed.

This time, court officials destroyed the essay portion of the test even before they could learn how employees performed, forcing the trial court's human resources manager to notify 32 test-takers that they would have to do the essay portion again.

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"The entire Human Resources Department is disheartened by this event, since we have worked tirelessly to develop a best-practice exam process for employees and candidates," said Mark Conlon, the court system's director of human resources, in a statement to the Globe. "I have expressed my personal responsibility to court leaders and test-takers for this mistake, which ultimately was a deeply regrettable human error."

Conlon explained that the tests, for promotions in the Probate and Family Court, were inadvertently placed with other testing materials that were scheduled to be destroyed for security reasons. He said the court is taking steps "to ensure this cannot happen again."

One probation officer said he thought it was a joke when he heard the test he took June 19 had been destroyed, in part because the test was administered so meticulously.

"There were strict rules about how you should take the test. You had to have a certain number of pencils. If you left the room and walked too far away, you couldn't go back in. They spent 45 minutes telling us what do with the test booklets," said the probation officer, who requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation.

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"We did what we were supposed to do. It's not our fault you destroyed exams. It's not fair," he added.

The same day Conlon wrote his e-mail, the trial court released the results of an audit that showed no problem with the scoring of the promotional test given in March for jobs in the district and superior court even though more than half of the test takers failed, including 10 people who had already been promoted to assistant chief on an acting basis.

Industrial/Organizational Solutions Inc. of Illinois, the company that devised and administered the exam, said its audit showed the failure rate was actually slightly higher than previously believed. Because of an arithmetic mistake, an applicant who initially had been notified he or she passed actually failed.

"Without reservation, IOS recommends that the Massachusetts Trial Court human resources department use the results of the 2015 promotional exam to create eligibility lists for the positions of assistant chief probation officer and chief probation officer," the company wrote.

Several test-takers who had been serving as acting assistant chiefs when they failed the tests have been told they would return to their old jobs as probation officers, with a loss of pay, on Aug. 3.

The tests were supposed to be a more objective way to judge candidates for jobs and promotions, replacing the corrupt patronage system of former probation commissioner John J. O'Brien. He was convicted last year of illegally doling out jobs to connected candidates, regardless of whether they were qualified. Court officials said they were required to give the new tests as part of the Legislature's reforms in 2011 after the Globe reported on the hiring scandal and O'Brien resigned as commissioner.

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But trial court officials, who oversee probation, didn't anticipate that so many employees would fail or that it would be so difficult to administer a testing program smoothly.

A group of minority probation officers are even considering a lawsuit, complaining that written tests are biased against them.

"It is my understanding that a disproportionately large number of minorities failed the exam — many of whom are actually in the positions that they're seeking to hold permanently," said attorney Harold Lichten, who may sue on behalf of those employees.

Most of the test-takers failed the writing portion of the test.

Several probation officers said they were not surprised that IOS found no problems with its own test but pointed out that the company's written explanation of its audit method was so poorly written that it was incomprehensible.

Union officials, who had requested the review of the test scores, said there was at least one clear flaw in the way the March test was given: The essays were graded by probation managers, including some who had helped O'Brien implement his sham hiring and promotional policies.

National Association of Government Employees president David Holway said he supports the new, more objective way of deciding promotions but said the exams should have been corrected by the testing company.

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"If the purpose was to build confidence in the promotional process and to move the agency forward, then the decision to use the agency managers was wrong," Holway said.

The fact that last month's probate court test booklets were inadvertently shredded also undermines employees' faith in the testing process, Holway said.

"Someone makes a human error like this, it sort of undoes the good intentions of the whole process," Holway said.


Andrea Estes can be reached at andrea.estes@globe.com.