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Glitches, Data Errors Delay Illinois Test-Score Release

By Michele McNeil — December 05, 2006 4 min read
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More than eight months after taking Illinois’ achievement test, about 1 million of that state’s public school students and their districts still don’t know the results because of incomplete testing materials, scoring glitches, and data-entry errors.

The lengthy delay means the state can’t identify which schools are struggling and which are making adequate yearly progress, as required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. And the test results won’t be known until January, at the earliest.

For students, the holdup means they could be missing out on free tutoring or the ability to transfer out of schools, because the state can’t identify which schools have failed persistently in making progress in improving student achievement.

Illinois is one of two states yet to release achievement-test results from the 2005-06 academic year, but the only one to do so unexpectedly. Montana, which will release its results early next year, is doing so with advance approval from the U.S. Department of Education, according to Tara Jensen, a Montana Office of Public Instruction spokeswoman.

Though the states can be fined if their assessment systems are not in compliance with the No Child Left Behind law, the federal Education Department won’t penalize Illinois, said Chad Colby, a department spokesman. Illinois state board of education officials say they’ve kept federal officials updated throughout the delays.

The state isn’t sure when the test results from the spring of 2006 will be ready or how many students could be missing out on the extra academic help, which is provided as part of the nearly 5-year-old federal education law. The law has a goal of having all students academically proficient by 2014, and state tests are used to determine whether schools are making progress in raising student achievement. Students in schools that persistently fail to make progress are eligible to receive tutoring or the option of transferring to another school.

The Illinois Standards Achievement Test, or ISAT, is the test given to students annually in grades 3 to 8 in reading and mathematics, and in grades 4 and 7 in science. Generally, the state releases results before Oct. 31.

Although scoring is complete on the Illinois tests, the testing company, San Antonio-based Harcourt Assessment, must do clean-up work because hundreds of tests still can’t be matched with the appropriate students. Once the data are complete, it will be four or five weeks before student-score reports are done and the school and district report cards can be completed, according to state education officials.

The delay forced the 421,000-student Chicago school system to make educated guesses about which students would be entitled to free tutoring under NCLB.

Elizabeth F. Swanson, the director of the Chicago district’s office of after-school and community school programs, said the district used preliminary dataandprojectionsto decide which schools would fail to make adequate yearly progress and thus qualify for federally funded tutoring. For schools that were on the edge, she said, the district used its own funds to pay for tutoring. Once the test scores are out, school officials can make budgetary adjustments later in the year to ensure that federal funds were spent on the appropriate schools.

“We just had to move forward,” said Ms. Swanson, whose program provides tutoring for about 53,000 of the district’s students.

Technical Glitches

The testing problems involved the testing company and district officials, who were trying to implement a new student-identifier data system, both parties acknowledge.

Harcourt had problems getting tests to schools on time, and some of the tests that were delivered had missing or duplicate pages. Harcourt spokesman Russell Schweiss said his company, which has testing contracts in 10 states, chartered planes to get the tests to schools on time, but ran into problems tracking the materials. Once the tests came back to be scored, Harcourt discovered a scoring glitch that further delayed the results.

“We went to some pretty extreme lengths to resolve the issues,” Mr. Schweiss said.

But the biggest, most time-consuming problem, Mr. Schweiss said, was in verifying student data submitted by school officials across the state, part of the state’s initiative to track individual students’ progress on tests using a new data system. The system relies on local officials to enter demographic data for each student’s test.

About 11,000 tests had missing or incorrect demographic data, and the company had to make thousands of calls to districts to correct the information, Mr. Schweiss said. The company has whittled that number down to fewer than 700 tests that still need to be matched to individual students.

The state provided training to school officials on data entry, but problems in that area contributed to the delay, according to state board of education spokeswoman Meta Minton.

The testing problems have cost the Illinois education department an undetermined amount of money in legal costs and extra staffing time, she said.

In addition, the delays cost Harcourt Assessment part of its contract with the state. In October, the Illinois Board of Education awarded the scoring, printing, and distribution portions of its assessment system to Iowa City, Iowa-based Pearson Educational Measurement for three years, a contract worth $32.9 million. Harcourt still will be responsible for developing each year’s test.

Associate Editor David J. Hoff contributed to this report.

A version of this article appeared in the December 06, 2006 edition of Education Week as Glitches, Data Errors Delay Illinois Test-Score Release

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