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Why Test Scores Take Long Time to Process

Thursday, January 6, 2005; Page GZ06

Dear Extra Credit:

My son took three Maryland High School Assessments last spring: national, state and local government; biology; and Algebra I. He still hasn't received his scores! Our acting principal sent me an e-mail Dec. 19 that said he had students' individual scores and that my son had passed all three, but it still sort of boggles my mind that Montgomery County or the state of Maryland (or whoever is responsible) hasn't notified the parents in general. I got an e-mail from someone who told me that the folks in Calvert County had gotten their scores in October. Why would it take Montgomery County two extra months?

Lyda Astrove

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Rockville

Walter Johnson High School

parent

You will not be surprised that one of the problems is that Montgomery County, with 140,000 students, takes longer to do some things than Calvert, with only 18,000 students. Terry Alban, director of Montgomery schools' Department of Shared Accountability, said the county has to wait for the state to post school and system-level test data on its Web site. This usually takes three months after the administration of the tests because there are some constructed response items -- what we elderly people used to call essay questions -- that must be graded by slow-moving human beings rather than computers.

Then the county numbers experts get the data. To get your son's scores on the High School Assessments, or HSA, tests takes another three months because there are 50,000 individual scores to process, and nobody wants to make a mistake.

That might sound like an excuse for bureaucratic foot-dragging. But Alban provided a detailed summary of what her staff members have to do to get your child's score to you. Here is what she told me:

"First six weeks: Programmers develop a separate parameter file for each test. Each parameter file has to be developed from scratch because each involves unique test specifications, such as test length, passing standard, subtests and scores. If there are any changes to the test specifications, then the program developed the previous year must be re-done. There were changes made by the state on all four HSA testing files this year, thus new programs were necessary for each test. These changes are possible every year and will continue to impact processing time for reports whenever they occur. Each parameter file requires hundreds of lines of code, and each line has to be validated against the mainframe operating system.

"Next six weeks: The state data files need to be 'cleaned,' which means that duplicate records must be removed and any student record with incomplete information, such as missing ID numbers or other identifying information, must be corrected or it will not be accepted by the mainframe system."

Other steps include: "Loading each test file and associated student scores to the mainframe. Any student record that cannot be reconciled (for example, if the student has enrolled in a different school) must be corrected. Linking the testing files to students' home address and creating a file with home report data. Developing an access database shell to receive the home report data and creating individualized students' home reports. Printing sample copies and verifying accuracy of home reports. Printing two copies of each report -- one for schools' records and one for distribution to parents.

"Final two weeks: Home reports are sent to a vendor for processing and mailing. Home reports are mailed directly to the students' homes."

Alban said the HSA home reports were sent to the vendor that handles the mailing the week of Dec. 6 and might have been received by some parents already. Staff members from the Office of Strategic Technologies and Accountability are working on a Web-based system for test data files that they hope will be ready by July.

"This new system will be less cumbersome for programming and should save several weeks," Alban said. "However, the process to verify that scores are accurate for every student will always be a deliberate process. Thus, it will still take five to eight weeks to process and validate the home reports."


© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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