FINDING a silver lining among a week of testing troubles at Oklahoma schools isn't easy. We can think of only one: The contract with the company responsible for the debacle expires in June.
While Oklahoma has a long history with testing mishaps, the widespread technical glitches are a relatively new issue. The depth of the most recent problems became apparent Monday when the state estimated testing for about 2,000 students was sidetracked because the testing company's servers crashed.
Despite assurances that technology improvements would be ready, the servers crashed again Tuesday and tensions at schools understandably increased. State schools Superintendent Janet Barresi said she was “outraged” at the problems.
The state has required online administration of high school end-of-instruction tests since 2009. Since then, the majority of issues related to the change have been largely local, like power outages or schools not having adequate technology. This week's server issues — which also brought testing to a halt in Indiana — commanded a whole new level of attention to online test administration.
Approval of separate contracts last year made CTB/McGraw-Hill the state's testing contractor for third- through eighth-grade tests and high school end-of-instruction tests. The decision came after state officials opted not to renew an agreement with Pearson, another big-name testing vendor, because of issues with inaccurate data and delays in providing results to schools.
The way forward has short-term and long-term components. Schools need to complete their testing under some frustrating circumstances and will have a few extra days to do so. The state Education Department announced students who were testing during the server issues don't have to retake the tests if they had correctly answered enough questions for a passing score. All other students must sit for a retake.
Some educators have concerns about how this year's scores will apply to the A-F grading system for schools. Those concerns should be weighed, although negative consequences hopefully will be nominal given that the only partially completed tests that'll be counted are those where students' scores rank as proficient or better.
Critics of testing and the current accountability measures shouldn't take this as a moment to further oppose testing altogether. Rather, the struggles should be used as a learning opportunity to develop better preventive and contingency plans.
Barresi told The Oklahoman a “dry run” will be held in the future to spot any technology problems or other challenges as the state proceeds with its new tests tied to more rigorous education standards. That's a good step toward prevention. Barresi said discussions for contingency plans also are ongoing. This week showed why that's important, even if it's unclear what those plans look like.
Aside from finishing testing, the state also will have to decide whether to renew its contract with CTB/McGraw-Hill or seek new bidders. Booting the current vendor may seem the obvious choice. Reality is that no major testing company has a pristine record, so hiring a new vendor isn't a fail-safe.
The pressure on students and teachers during testing is immense, and that can't be forgotten. The priorities should be to support students and educators through the rest of testing and begin a serious discussion about the best way to correctly account for the mishaps when it comes to school grades. Next, state education officials must seek a thorough review of the contract and think creatively about how to craft an agreement that truly has students' best interests at heart and produces accurate, usable information for schools.