Firm Pledges to Fix Online Exam Glitches

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 5, 2007

The company that provides standardized tests to Virginia's schoolchildren will add staff and upgrade technology to help prevent technical glitches such as those that recently forced thousands of students to retake online exams, officials said yesterday.

Interruptions last month in online testing forced about 9,500 students, including some in Loudoun, Fairfax and Prince William counties, to retake exams, officials said.

Douglas Kubach, president of Pearson Educational Measurement, said the source of the problems, including issues with software and a server, has been fixed. But he said the Iowa-based company has agreed to enhance services, including having more workers available to help school districts solve any future problems quickly. The company also will pay for retesting and provide Virginia with about 2,700 free tests to compensate for the time the system was down.

Kubach announced the changes yesterday after a meeting with state Superintendent of Public Instruction Billy K. Cannaday Jr.

State education officials noted that about 1.5 million online tests will be administered statewide this year and that most will go smoothly. But they said any disruption in the high-stakes Standards of Learning tests, which are used to measure progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, could affect performance.

"When you have any student who cannot have a problem-free testing episode . . . it concerns us, and it concerns our vendor," Cannaday said in a conference call with reporters.

Virginia, which began administering the tests online in 2001, also uses paper-and-pencil exams. Officials said the online exams, which can be graded more quickly than the paper versions, allow schools to administer tests later in the year, giving students the benefit of more time in class.

On several days in mid-May, thousands of students across the state hit testing snags online. In some cases, computer screens turned blue; other students said they weren't able to log on.

Pearson is also working to enhance real-time monitoring of the tests and to find ways to insulate students in the midst of testing from problems in the system, Kubach said. He said the company aims to resolve any future problems in "minutes or less."

The cost to Pearson for the retests and upgrades has not been calculated, Kubach and state education officials said. The company has a six-year, $140 million contract with the state.

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