The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Severe technical problems raise concerns over online tests

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Add this to the list of problems with high-stakes standardized tests: Technical glitches in several states during the online administration of new exams have been so severe in recent weeks that officials suspended testing in some places, students cried and educators worried about how scores would be affected.

In Oklahoma, Minnesota, Kentucky and Indiana, students were taking tests online when servers crashed and they were “kicked offline,” the Associated Press reported in this story. In other cases, the loading time for questions was slow, students were in the middle of answering a question when they went offline, and some students couldn’t even log into the exams in the first place, according to this Education Week story.

It said in part:

Many frustrated students have been reduced to tears and administrators are boiling over, calling the problems “disastrous” and “unacceptable” at a time when test results count so heavily toward schools’ ratings under the federal No Child Left Behind law. In places such as Indiana, where former Gov. Mitch Daniels approved changes tying teachers’ merit pay to student test scores, the pressure is even greater.
“Teachers are extremely frustrated because of the high-stakes nature of this test,” said Jeff Sherrill, principal at Emmons Elementary School in Mishawaka, Ind. “They know they’re going to be judged on this and their schools are going to be judged on this. Certainly it’s changed the outcome of the testing, because there’s no way it’s not going to.”

The problems were not related to a single test administrator but, rather, several — Indiana and Oklahoma have contracts with CTB/McGraw-Hill, Kentucky with ACT Inc., and Minnesota with the American Institutes for Research.

Those contracts are worth many millions of dollars — In Indiana, for example, McGraw-Hill is in the third year of a four-year, $95 million contract, the AP reported — raising questions about how much more public money will be needed to fix the technology, or to start over. The Education Week story says that the problems “made some state lawmakers and policymakers reconsider the idea of online testing, and sent district officials into a tailspin.”

The Edweek story quotes a statement from CTB/McGraw-Hill that says in part that  practice simulations

did not fully anticipate the patterns of live student testing and as a result our system configuration experienced service interruptions that impacted the testing process.

They didn’t fully anticipate the problems? Really? Any teenager who lives online could have told them to expect problems.

That underscores the experimental nature of the testing regime, which would be unfortunate enough even if the stakes weren’t high for students and teachers. But they are. Some students are taking the tests in order to graduate from high school, and in some cases, the student scores are linked to educators’ pay and job security. That puts the problems in a more serious light.

The online issues raise a whole new concern as states around the country are moving to new assessments linked to the Common Core. States were supposed to be beefing up their technological abilities so that exams could be taken online, but budget cuts have restricted just how much they, and individual districts, have been able to do. The rush to implement the Common Core has left many teachers feeling unprepared to teach material aligned to it; in some places, students are taking high-stakes tests aligned to the Core even though they haven’t been taught the material.

Furthermore, the new Common Core exams being developed by two consortia of states, with some $350 million in federal funds, won’t be the “game changer” that Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said they will be. Why? Because of a lack of money and time. A recent report from the Gordon Commission on the Future of Assessment in Education said in part:

The assessments that we will need in the future do not yet exist. The progress made by the PARCC and Smarter Balanced consortia in assessment development, while significant, will be far from what is ultimately needed for either accountability or classroom instructional improvement purposes. This is not a criticism of the Consortia per se but a realistic appraisal of the design constraints and timelines imposed upon their work from the outset.

In recent weeks, problems have been reported in New York state, where Pearson-designed tests linked to the Common Core State Standards have been criticized for being too long and having some fuzzy questions. There were also concerns about mistakes with scoring of tests that were used to identify students for gifted-and-talented programs, as well as about references to commercial products in test questions.

What are we hearing from the Obama administration as the problems mount with high-stakes standardized testing, which has been supported by federal dollars? Well, in a speech he gave this week to the American Educational Research Association, he said he recognized that there were problems with standardized tests, but that “we can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

As one commenter, efavorite, wrote when I posted the Duncan speech earlier:

What if the bath water is toxic? Should you leave the baby in it, because someone in authority called it bath water?