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Online Glitches Frustrate Test-Takers in Va. Schools

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By Michael Alison Chandler and Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 17, 2007

Like thousands of Virginia students taking high-stakes state tests online this month, Amy Clarkson of Falls Church High School hit unexpected and nerve-racking snags. She and others couldn't log on to their 11th-grade history exam last week, she said, and had to wait several days to take it. When she finished the English exam Tuesday, she was forced to stay an extra 90 minutes to ensure that her answers weren't lost in cyberspace.

She was luckier than some. About 6,000 students statewide could not finish their online tests Tuesday morning because of a glitch in a server maintained by testing vendor Pearson Educational Measurement of Iowa, according to the Virginia Department of Education. Most of those students will have to take alternative tests in coming days. Another system failure last week interrupted 1,300 tests in 13 school divisions, including Fairfax County, state officials said.

Fairfax school officials were steamed over the snags in a testing system used to rate their performance.

"These high-stakes tests and the reputation of our school division are being compromised by an ineffective delivery system," Fairfax School Superintendent Jack D. Dale wrote in a letter Tuesday to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Billy K. Cannady Jr.

The letter from the head of the 164,000-student school system, the state's largest, detailed a litany of concerns about "substandard communication and service" from Pearson.

In addition to a system failure last Thursday afternoon, when at least one middle school had to reschedule 113 tests, many of the system's pencil-and-paper tests were delivered late or not at all, Dale wrote.

Only seven Fairfax students will have to retake tests because of Tuesday morning's disruptions, school officials said. Other Northern Virginia systems were hit harder. Testing was interrupted for about 450 students in Prince William County and another 450 in Loudoun County, according to the state Education Department. Alexandria officials reported that about 200 students will need to retake tests. And many of the more than 100 students who had to stop mid-test in Fauquier County will have to start over.

Some school officials rescheduled tests Tuesday afternoon even after problems had been worked out. "By then, there's so much chaos, disruption and anxiety that testing is not a good thing," said Mary Wills, Fauquier's testing director.

Virginia started online testing in 2001 with about 10,000 state tests. About 1.2 million tests are expected to be given online this year, mostly to middle and high school students.

The state is one of a few to use online testing to meet federal No Child Left Behind mandates, according to Thomas Toch, co-director of Education Sector, a District-based think thank. He said most states lack adequate computers and are sticking with pencil-and-paper tests.

"This sort of online testing is very tricky to do," Toch said. "You have to coordinate a lot of moving pieces, you have to acquire a lot of expensive equipment, and you have to dodge the many opportunities for glitches to emerge in the system."

The $2.3 billion-a-year testing industry has been under intense strain because of the increase in testing under the five-year-old law. "The system is buckling under the pressure," Toch said. "The industry isn't keeping up."

Pearson has provided services for Virginia's online testing for several years, but this is the first year that it contracted for paper tests as well, said company spokesman David Hakensen. He said company officials were analyzing the cause of Tuesday's problems.

A flashing green traffic light on the state Education Department's Web site yesterday indicated that the system was operating smoothly. Department spokeswoman Julie Grimes said that by mid-morning, 66,000 online tests were underway with no problems.

Many testing administrators said they were thankful for a glitch-free day, adding that when the online tests work, they work really well. Video-game-trained teens prefer the computer format, they said, and test results come back much more quickly.

But frustrations have emerged in the past week.

At Massaponax High School in Fredericksburg, testing has been interrupted twice in recent days because of troubles with Pearson's online system. Nearly 200 students lost geometry or algebra tests last week, and 19 remain on standby to take an alternative test.

"Can you imagine?" said Massaponax Principal Joe Rodkey. "The whole school prepares for this. The teachers and the kids all year long, and we have all kinds of tutoring sessions just beforehand. . . . And they are all pumped and primed and ready to go, and then bam! the system goes down."

At Falls Church High, Clarkson said she is finally finished with her tests and greatly relieved. Next year, she said, she and her friends would prefer to use pencil and paper for their tests. Computers, she said, "are so unreliable."


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