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Assessment Industry Faces a Test of Its Own

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By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 28, 2007

One in an occasional series on the culture of testing

Blank blue computer screens frustrated thousands of Virginia students this month during online state exams in a series of disruptions that underscored vulnerabilities in the educational testing industry. Such episodes, experts said, could prompt changes in how the nation's schools assess student performance.

Test software malfunctions in several states, coupled with staff shortages and cutthroat competition in the industry, have fueled a growing debate over whether to cut the number of tests taken under the federal No Child Left Behind law or adjust the testing calendar.

"The system has had a lot of pressure put on it," said Adam J. Newman, a managing vice president of the market research group Eduventures Inc. in Boston.

"The companies are really struggling," said Thomas Toch, co-director of the D.C. think tank Education Sector.

Under the five-year-old federal law, public schools must test all students in reading and math in third through eighth grades and once in high school. The law also calls for more science tests. The massive expansion of required testing fell onto the relatively small testing industry like a log landing on a twig.

An industry shakeout is underway amid fierce competition for state contracts. Several top testing company executives have been fired. Pearson Educational Measurement, blamed for the Virginia test disruptions, has acquired another major testing company, Harcourt Assessment Inc.

Fairfax County school officials complained in vivid terms about what they saw as sloppy work by Pearson, now the nation's biggest testing company. In a May 15 letter to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Billy K. Cannaday Jr., Fairfax schools Superintendent Jack D. Dale said that paper tests prepared by Pearson arrived several days late in loose, unsorted cartons and that calls to Pearson about online testing disruptions often went unanswered.

"We very much regret the disruption" in the Virginia Standards of Learning testing, Pearson spokesman David Hakensen said. "The irony is that Virginia and Pearson have been pioneers in developing the online model for the effective, accurate and scalable delivery of student testing."

Virginia began online testing in 2001. This year, the state estimated it would give about 1.2 million online SOL tests.

Failures in mid-May interrupted testing at schools in Loudoun, Fairfax, Prince William and Fauquier counties and elsewhere in the state. Some students who were halfway through or nearly finished had to start over with a new test another day.

Newman said new software often fails when demand surges, much as shopping Web sites often crashed in the early years of that online industry.


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