Law & Courts

Online-Testing Stumbles Spark Legislation in Affected States

By Daarel Burnette II — March 08, 2016 6 min read
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The nationwide shift from paper-and-pencil tests to online standardized assessment has caused serious heartburn for educators and students alike in many places: server meltdowns, frozen computer screens, and test-score dips.

But in a handful of states, the sometimes-temporary, but ill-timed glitches have fueled legislation that would crack down on testing companies and have lasting impact on the role tests play in evaluating schools and teachers.

Indiana lawmakers are considering scrapping altogether the state’s decades-old ISTEP exam after two years of widespread problems with the administration and scoring of the test.

In Tennessee, where tests were put on hold at the last minute this year because of server meltdowns, the governor and legislators want to let teachers choose whether to factor this year’s results into their evaluations.

Minnesota teachers, meanwhile, are pushing legislation that would make more transparent the scoring of the statewide exam and complaints that students and teachers file with the state. And Alaska lawmakers want to revamp the state’s entire accountability system after test scores were botched and arrived late.

Lawmakers Bombarded

In recent months, teachers’ unions and anti-testing groups have bombarded lawmakers in some states with letters from students and teachers that describe the emotional toll that last-minute online assessment problems have caused.

“We’ve seen the testing industry suck the joy out of teaching and learning,” said Denise Specht, the president of Minnesota’s teachers’ union. “That’s not new for educators. But with the glitches, parents and educators can no longer trust the tests.”

Testing companies and their allies say unions are exploiting the incidents to eradicate tests, which advocates consider long-standing and reliable tools for grading students. When placing tests online, hiccups are bound to happen, they say.

“I think school districts and parents especially want to know how their children are doing in school, and in order to do that, you need some kind of tool to measure that,” said Henry Scherich, the president of Measurement Inc., based in Durham, N.C., which was hired to administer Tennessee’s tests this year. “So far, I don’t think anybody has come up with a better system than having a testing program.”

Adding to the volatility: the recent passage of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which will give state legislatures greater flexibility in shaping the details of their testing systems to determine whether students have a solid grasp of state learning standards.

Online-Assessment Meltdowns

The rocky rollout of computerized assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards has sparked a fierce reaction in several states:

Alaska

The state school board and several legislators are moving to scrap the entire statewide assessment after test scores were botched last spring and the testing company, the Assessment & Achievement Institute of Kansas, sent the scores to the education department later than anticipated.

Indiana

In one of his first actions this year, Republican Gov. Mike Pence decoupled evaluations from test scores after the Indianapolis Star revealed that a computer malfunction at the contracted testing company, CTB/McGraw-Hill, led to several districts receiving much lower scores than expected on the state’s ISTEP test. A subsequent investigation led to political fallout after the Associated Press reported that a school board employee attempted to change the language of a damning audit of the state’s test.

Minnesota

After hundreds of teachers complained about server crashes, online calculators that generated incorrect answers, and freezing computer screens, the state education department successfully sued the assessment contractor, Pearson. The state did an audit, and legislators rolled back the amount of testing conducted in schools. But the state’s teachers’ union isn’t satisfied. Weeks ahead of this year’s legislative session, which opens March 8, the union is pushing for lawmakers to clamp down even further.

Tennessee

After contractor Measurement Inc.’s server crashed on the first day of testing in January, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam proposed a bill that would allow teachers to decide whether to incorporate their schools’ test scores into their evaluation scores. Legislators also are pushing to lessen the impact the scores will have on several of the state’s low-performing schools. The state’s schools will use paper tests this year.

SOURCE: Education Week

In Indiana, which once led the charge in ranking schools and evaluating teachers partly using test scores, even the state’s conservative lawmakers have turned against the ISTEP exam after a spate of technical problems.

In 2014, the state had already backed away from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, exam after lawmakers determined it was too closely aligned to the controversial Common Core State Standards, which Indiana altered. Within months, the state school board wrote and approved a test that CTB/McGraw-Hill administered online last spring.

Lawmakers and educators seem to agree now that the rollout of the revised ISTEP exam was nothing short of a disaster.

In January, an Indianapolis Star investigation revealed that CTB/McGraw Hill had miscalculated several students’ scores, setting off a statewide controversy over the legitimacy of the scores. Adding more fuel to the fire, a subsequent investigation by the Associated Press revealed that a school board employee attempted to minimize the critical language in an audit of the exam.

In one of his first moves this legislative session, Republican Gov. Mike Pence in January signed legislation that decoupled the 2015 test scores from teacher pay and school report cards.

After superintendents began complaining last month about problems with this year’s practice exams, conducted by testing company Pearson (the state fired CTB/McGraw-Hill), legislation was drafted that would eliminate the ISTEP exam by the end of next year. It’s moving along swiftly, with strong support from the legislature and governor.

“I think there’s an important role for standardized testing and assessment over the years,” state Rep. Terri Austin, a Democrat, said about the role of testing in the state’s accountability system. “But if we’re going to tie these types of consequences to a single test, we need to make sure it goes through without a hitch.”

Lawmakers haven’t determined a replacement for ISTEP.

Tennessee Pulls Back

As in Indiana, controversy about the PARCC exam led Tennessee officials to abandon the test and develop a new one.

In the Volunteer State, test scores are heavily wrapped up with teacher evaluations, school report cards, and even students’ grades. For the past four years, the state has used the scores partly to determine whether to take over several schools in Memphis and Nashville and hand them over to charter school operators, a process that’s led to parent protests.

In preparation for the transition from paper-and-pencil to online tests this year, the state spent millions of dollars upgrading school Wi-Fi networks and giving practice exams.

But as 44,513 students logged on to begin math and English exams in early February, computer screens froze. After just an hour, state schools Superintendent Candice McQueen called off the online exams. Schools will administer paper tests instead in April.

Weeks later, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam drafted legislation that would allow teachers to choose whether to incorporate the scores into their exams. It’s considered likely to pass.

McQueen said she’s re-evaluating the state’s five-year contract with Measurement Inc.

Scherich, the president of that company, said the state gave up too quickly on the online test. The company had reserved space on 58 servers during the test, he said, and more than 19,000 students managed to complete the exam that day. He said the governor’s proposal is misguided.

“That’s a policy decision that has nothing to do with whether or not our online system works well or not,” he said. “However, I’m sure there was a big sigh of relief around the state from educators when they learned it wasn’t going to be part of their evaluation system.”

Tightening the Reins

After Minnesota switched to online tests last year, teachers in a survey reported that screens froze, calculators malfunctioned, and questions were hard to read.

Late in last year’s session, legislators reeled back the amount of time students spend on exams and passed a bill that requires an audit of the exams and allows districts to set aside suspect scores.

Education Minnesota, the teachers’ union, which is affiliated with both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, says the legislators didn’t go far enough. For this year’s upcoming session, it is pushing a package of legislation that would clamp down on the state’s testing vendors even further by, among other things, forcing them to raise the standards for who scores tests, banning the use of student data for marketing purposes, and making public any complaints educators file about testing glitches.

Pearson spokesman Scott Overland wouldn’t respond directly to the proposed legislation, which he said the company hasn’t thoroughly reviewed yet. But he said the company embraces “fewer and better tests.”

And in Alaska, where state Superintendent Mike Hanley worked for three years to prepare for the rollout of the online exam, he said the scores were botched, and the results from the 2015 exam came in late.

The fallout continues: In response to the testing problems, state lawmakers there are proposing to toss the exam going forward, and the state board will soon vote to replace its accountability system and instead give both superintendents and principals more power to evaluate teachers.

A version of this article appeared in the March 09, 2016 edition of Education Week as Testing Stumbles Prompt Legislation in Affected States

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