Computer glitches derail school tests in 4 states

Published on NewsOK Modified: May 1, 2013 at 7:50 pm •  Published: May 1, 2013
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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — School districts across several states are rescheduling high-stakes tests that judge student proficiency and even determine teachers' pay because of technical problems involving the test administrators' computer systems.

Thousands of students in Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota and Oklahoma have been kicked offline while taking tests in recent weeks, postponing the testing schools planned for months and raising concerns about whether the glitches will affect scores.

"There's been pep rallies and spirit weeks all getting ready for this. It's like showing up for the big game and then the basketball is deflated," said Jason Zook, a fifth-grade teacher at Brown Intermediate Center in South Bend, Ind.

Many frustrated students have been reduced to tears and administrators are boiling over, calling the problems "disastrous" and "unacceptable" at a time when test results count so heavily toward schools' ratings under the federal No Child Left Behind law. In places such as Indiana, where former Gov. Mitch Daniels approved changes tying teachers' merit pay to student test scores, the pressure is even greater.

"Teachers are extremely frustrated because of the high-stakes nature of this test," said Jeff Sherrill, principal at Emmons Elementary School in Mishawaka, Ind. "They know they're going to be judged on this and their schools are going to be judged on this. Certainly it's changed the outcome of the testing, because there's no way it's not going to."

CTB/McGraw-Hill is the contractor in Indiana and Oklahoma and administers statewide standardized tests in eight other states. Kentucky Department of Education spokeswoman Nancy Rodriguez said its vendor, ACT Inc., reported online issues in Kentucky and Alabama. American Institutes for Research, or AIR, is the contractor in Minnesota.

Kentucky Department of Education Associate Commissioner Ken Draut said the agency suspended online testing through at least Thursday after about 25 districts reported slow and dropped connections from the ACT Vantage testing system used to administer end-of-course assessments for students taking English II, Algebra II, biology and U.S. history. About 60 percent of Kentucky districts administer the tests online.

In Indiana, McGraw-Hill is in the third year of a four-year, $95 million contract, while in Oklahoma, it has a one-year, $16 million contract with an option to renew an additional four years. Minnesota's $61 million, three-year contract with AIR expires this year. Rodriguez, reached at home, said she did not know the terms of Kentucky's ACT contract.

"I think the only thing the ... states have in common is that technology is not infallible," said Charlene Briner, chief of staff of the Minnesota Department of Education, which temporarily suspended testing after the first disruption April 16.

Briner said the glitches affected many students taking the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment, which provides much of the data the state uses to judge school performance.

AIR executive vice president Jon Cohen attributed the first disruption to a problem with its servers, which have been fixed. The company is not yet sure what caused a subsequent Internet interruption, but Cohen said there wasn't a problem at AIR's data center.

Cohen said students' performance shouldn't be affected by interrupted tests, which are designed to be paused and resumed.