Assessment

Online Testing Glitches Causing Distrust in Technology

By Michelle R. Davis — May 06, 2014 4 min read
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For the second year in a row, a handful of states experienced significant disruptions in online testing, creating such a high level of distrust with the technology-based process that some districts chose to revert to paper-and-pencil tests in an effort to avoid problems.

Florida, Kansas, and Oklahoma all suspended online testing at some point during testing windows in April because of computer glitches that led to slow load times or kicked students out of the assessment systems. Indiana districts reported problems during the week of April 21, as they did practice testing, but, as of mid-week last week, officials from the state’s department of education reported that only one district was beset by significant glitches.

In each of those states, the testing problems were attributed to the assessment provider. In Oklahoma, where 8,100 students in grades 6-12 experienced disruptions, the trouble arose from CTB/McGraw-Hill, which reported a hardware malfunction. That same issue was blamed for problems in Indiana, which also contracts with Monterey, Calif.-based CTB/McGraw-Hill, during the practice-testing period.

In Florida, where 26 of 67 districts reported a variety of disruptions, test-provider Pearson, based in New York City, cited “degraded administrative functions” and quickly fixed the problems, said Joe Follick, a spokesman for the state’s department of education. And early in April, Kansas education officials were forced to suspend administration of state exams after testing vendor the Center for Education Testing and Evaluation, based at the University of Kansas, in Lawrence, was overwhelmed with attacks from unidentified hackers.

‘Extreme’ Angst

The fallout from the disruptions comes as many states are moving toward online testing—some prompted by the expectation that assessments tied to the Common Core State Standards be given online by 2014-15. But publicity surrounding the breakdowns is creating a wariness about testing technology and its ability to operate successfully.

In the 31,000-student Fort Wayne school system in Indiana, Superintendent Wendy Y. Robinson announced last week that students would take state tests using paper and pencils instead of online, following disruptions during practice tests. That meant, however, that testing will be delayed until the end of May, when CTB/McGraw-Hill can deliver printed test booklets.

"[W]e lost confidence that testing could take place without the extensive interruptions students experienced last year,” Ms. Robinson said.

As occurred last year, when Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, and Oklahoma became mired in online-testing breakdowns, the test problems caused angst for educators and students. In Oklahoma, CTB/McGraw-Hill officials apologized and said this year’s disruptions were unrelated to the server overload which caused widespread problems in 2013.

But CTB/McGraw-Hill’s explanation of this year’s technical difficulties didn’t assuage some educators.

Keith Ballard, the superintendent of the 42,000-student Tulsa public schools, said about 2,000 students in grades 6-12 were affected by the testing complications and called the problems a “colossal meltdown.” The emphasis on high-stakes testing in the state means “the stakes are just huge,” he said.

Mr. Ballard faulted state Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi for awarding a $13 million contract to CTB/McGraw-Hill this year after last year’s problems. At that time, Oklahoma education officials did not believe there was time to rebid the contract, said Tricia Pemberton, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma education department. Last year, CTB/McGraw-Hill paid more than $1.2 million to the state to cover damages suffered by students and teachers during testing.

This year, Ms. Barresi called for the state to not renew CTB/McGraw-Hill’s contract for the upcoming, 2014-15 school year. “It is an understatement to say I am outraged,” she said.

At a meeting with the Oklahoma State Board of Education April 24, CTB/McGraw-Hill’s President Ellen Haley apologized for the disruptions and said her company was dedicated to providing a high-quality product.

“We will do everything in our power to make sure nothing happens from here on,” she said.

But some board members were not satisfied, saying the company’s poor performance cast doubt on standardized and online testing. “People are rising up against testing, and you’re giving them ammunition,” said board member Amy Anne Ford.

Test of Confidence

The public and policymakers are right to have doubts about the reliability of online testing, which is relatively new in some states, argued Robert A. Schaeffer, the public eduction director of FairTest, which objects to increased standardized testing and is based in Jamaica Plain, Mass. The recent, high-profile disruptions reveal that “the market has gotten ahead of the developing and testing of the product,” he said, which is likely to undermine the credibility of such testing.

Brandt Redd, the chief technology officer of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium—one of two major consortia developing common- core tests—said he worries that negative perceptions could taint common-core online testing overall. However, he said field-testing of Smarter Balanced tests has gone more smoothly than expected. “We can manage any [negative] message by pointing out how well it’s gone elsewhere,” Mr. Redd said.

Laura Slover, the chief executive officer for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, which is also developing common-core tests, agreed, saying the benefits of online testing—the accessibility, fast results, and interactivity—outweigh technological risks. And, she said, today’s computer users understand that glitches sometimes occur.

“The vast majority of us use computers every day, and now and again our computers freeze up and you need to reboot,” Ms. Slover said. “Those are the known variables of 21st-century technology.”

Coverage of entrepreneurship and innovation in education and school design is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the May 07, 2014 edition of Education Week as Online Testing Glitches Causing Distrust in Technology


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