Just weeks before graduation, the Medical University of South Carolina is investigating how an outside agency administered a state licensure exam after an unusually high number of fourth-year dental students failed it.

Fifteen out of 56 students, about 27 percent, failed the board exam last weekend. Normally only three or four students fail.

Those 15 students who failed can still graduate next month, but won’t be eligible for a state license to practice dentistry until they retake and pass the exam.

Kathleen White, the executive director of the Virginia Beach-based Southeastern Regional Testing Agency, the group that administered the test, denied any wrongdoing by the three monitors who conducted the exam on April 12 and 13, but acknowledged the results were abnormal.

“(The results) were off, especially for MUSC students, because MUSC students generally do a very good job,” she said.

Reports suggest timing and logistical issues were a problem.

A specific allegation describes a test monitor who was watching coverage of the Masters on his Kindle during the six-hour test. White denied that version of events, but confirmed that the monitor left the testing room at one point to watch the golf tournament on a television in a nearby break room.

“He didn’t imply that he was gone very long,” she said.

The agency, which administers the test at dental schools in states around the Southeast every year, agreed to return to MUSC next weekend to allow the students an opportunity to retake the exam in Charleston instead of traveling to another testing location.

MUSC spokeswoman Heather Woolwine emphasized that the university only provided space for the exam.

“It’s important to note that this is not an MUSC exam. This is not an MUSC final exam,” Woolwine said. “It is administered by an independent company, an outside company.”

Woolwine said the university is reviewing how the test was handled, a process that will likely take several more days, she said.

White said a preliminary review of the results by the agency suggests several students simply ran out of time and didn’t finish within six hours and at least four automatically failed because of mistakes they made performing tooth restorations on live patients.

“I don’t know what to say,” she said. “I wish things would have been different for the kids.”

Dr. Mark Barry, associate dean for clinical affairs at the dental school, unsuccessfully tried to appeal seven of the failures.

He said students are formally submitting the problems they encountered in writing. He declined to mention specific anecdotes.

“I was there. I witnessed it,” Barry said. “This board was a huge blip on the screen. It was so different. The timing, the logistics of it were just off the charts.”

Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.