Illinois Schools Adjust to Delays, Mishaps by Test Company

By Sean Cavanagh & Alan Richard — March 21, 2006 3 min read

School districts across Illinois have scrambled to reschedule test dates and review test materials in response to a series of delays and problems with their statewide assessment—setbacks that state officials blame on the contractor hired to produce and deliver the exams.

At least 126 of the state’s 896 districts have sought to change the time when they administer the Illinois Standards Achievement Test, or ISAT, the mandatory annual exam for students in grades 3-8.

Illinois state Superintendent of Schools Randy J. Dunn blamed the state’s testing vendor, Harcourt Assessment Inc., for the problems, which he said included delays in sending tests and answer documents to districts, exams with missing or repeated sections, and a toll-free troubleshooting number that offered school officials little or no help. Students were scheduled to take the ISAT March 13-24.

At its regular meeting on March 16, the nine-member Illinois state board of education addressed three Harcourt officials, expressing their concerns about the testing miscues.

The board members focused more on fixing the problems than on assigning blame, said Meta Minton, the spokeswoman for the state education department.

They were nonetheless clear, she added, in telling the Harcourt officials: “We are putting you on notice and you have to deliver.”

State officials said that Harcourt Assessment, based in San Antonio, has a contract worth $44 million that lasts through the 2008-09 school year. That contract was approved in September 2004, just weeks before Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich appointed Mr. Dunn to the schools chief’s job and overhauled the membership of the state board.

On March 13, in a weekly newsletter, Mr. Dunn outlined a series of steps aimed at ensuring that the ISAT is scored accurately. He said he would also seek assurances that no mishaps occur during administration of the Prairie State Achievement Exam, the state assessment for 11th graders, which is scheduled for April and is also produced by Harcourt.

“Nothing short of this will be acceptable,” Mr. Dunn wrote.

Mr. Dunn has said previously that if Harcourt’s contract were canceled, he would expect Harcourt to complete the ongoing 2006 testing cycle.

In a statement issued before the Illinois board’s meeting, Harcourt officials acknowledged delays in distributing the ISAT materials, but said the remainder of the exam materials would be received by districts by March 13.

They also said they knew of only six Illinois school districts that had reported a total of 85 defective test booklets out of roughly 1.2 million shipped. Harcourt has conducted manual examinations of testing materials for grades in which errors were reported, and found a minuscule rate of defects, according to company officials. “Our entire focus at this time is on completing the administration of the current ISAT smoothly and without further delay,” Rick Blake, Harcourt Assessment’s vice-president for government relations and communications, said in a statement.

Mr. Blake added in a March 15 e-mail to Education Week that all ordered test materials had arrived at schools on March 13, despite some delays because of tornadoes in central Illinois. The company was continuing to process orders as it received them, he added.

Harcourt has not experienced delays in sending products to schools in other states, he wrote.

‘A Lot of Concern’

The ISAT assesses students in reading, mathematics, and science. The results are used to calculate school and district performance under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. This spring, Illinois students are being tested in reading and math in grades 3-8, and in science in 4th and 8th grades.

Most districts seek to administer the ISAT before the week they let students out for spring break, said Michael D. Johnson, the executive director of the Illinois Association of School Boards. The testing delays have upset those plans, forcing many systems to delay the tests until after students return, he said.

“You come back from spring break—that’s not the ideal learning environment for students,” Mr. Johnson said. “It’s caused a lot of concern in school districts.”

In his letter to district officials, Mr. Dunn, the state chief, said his office was finishing work on a plan to ensure the validity of the ISAT results. He said several steps were being considered, including contracting with a company other than Harcourt to check the accuracy of the scoring. He also asked districts that incur extra expenses as a result of testing problems to submit claims to the state board of education, which in turn will seek payment from Harcourt.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 22, 2006 edition of Education Week as Illinois Schools Adjust to Delays, Mishaps by Test Company