Date: May 8, 2013 8:08 PM
Author: Jerry P. Becker
Subject: States' Online Testing Problems: Common-Core Concerns
From Education Week [American Education's
Newspaper of Record], Friday, May 7, 2013,
Volume 32, Issue 30. See
States' Online Testing Problems Raise Common-Core Concerns
By Michelle R. Davis
Widespread technical failures and interruptions
of recent online testing in a number of states
have shaken the confidence of educators and
policymakers in high-tech assessment methods and
raised serious concerns about schools'
technological readiness for the coming
common-core online tests.
The glitches arose as many districts in the 46
states that have signed on to the Common Core
State Standards are trying to ramp up their
technological infrastructure to prepare for the
requirement that students take online assessments
starting in 2014-15.
Disruptions of testing were reported across
Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, and Oklahoma and
were linked to the states' assessment providers:
CTB/McGraw-Hill, in Indiana and Oklahoma; ACT
Inc., in Kentucky; and the American Institutes
for Research, in Minnesota.
Thousands of students experienced slow loading
times of test questions, students were closed out
of testing in mid-answer, and some were unable to
log in to the tests. Hundreds, if not thousands,
of tests may be invalidated.
The difficulties prompted all three states'
education departments to extend testing windows,
made some state lawmakers and policymakers
reconsider the idea of online testing, and sent
district officials into a tailspin.
The testing problems were "absolutely horrible,
in terms of kids being anxious," said Eric F.
Hileman, the executive director of information
technology services for the 43,000-student
Oklahoma City schools. Some high school students
were taking Oklahoma's high-stakes tests, which
require that students pass four out of seven
end-of-instruction tests to graduate.
"It was heartbreaking to watch them," Mr. Hileman
said. "Some of them were almost in tears."
Impact of Disruptions
The problems in Oklahoma and Indiana began on April 29.
Online Testing Derailments --- Several states
experienced major mishaps with their statewide
assessments recently, breakdowns that caused
delays and disruption for teachers and students.
April 29: Over 30,000 test sessions were
interrupted as students began taking state tests.
The state department of education extended the
testing window by three days.
April 30: Test interruptions spiked to 8 percent
of test-takers, and the department suspended
testing for the rest of the day.
May 1: The education department instructed
districts to continue testing students, but to
reduce the number of tests they plan to give
daily by 50 percent.
May 2: The department extended the testing window
an additional two days, for a total of five extra
May 1: School systems were ordered to suspend
online end-of-course tests after dropped and slow
connections were reported in about 25 districts
throughout the state.
May 2: State officials said the problem was
caused when its testing vendor, ACT Inc.,
reported that its system became overloaded.
Company officials told the state that the
capacity of the system would be increased, but
the state department of education also said it
would work with local districts to help them
"maximize the testing system's capacity" and
avoid other problems. Online testing was
scheduled to resume by May 8. State officials say
they will provide districts that give online
tests paper exams as an alternative.
April 16: Schools reported widespread problems
with online testing. Up to 5,000 students' tests
April 17: Testing resumed.
April 23: Test interruptions resurfaced. About 48
districts reported slow loading times or other
April 24: A handful of districts reported
persistent testing interruptions. About 60
students were affected.
May 1: Minnesota added one day to its testing
cycle to allow districts to catch up.
April 29: Students were taking state tests online when problems began at 9 a.m.
April 30: Testing began at 7 a.m.; problems arose
again around 10 a.m. About 3,000 out of 300,000
students statewide experienced some test
May 1: The state extended its testing window by
two days to allow districts to catch up.
SOURCES: State departments of education; Education Week
In Oklahoma-where roughly 300,000 students were
using online tests and about 3,000 experienced
problems-it was the end of the testing window for
grades 3-8 and the middle of the testing window
for high school students, said Tricia Pemberton,
a spokeswoman for the state department of
At 9 a.m., students' testing sessions were
disrupted by the glitches, and some were unable
to restart or to proceed, she said. The problems
continued the following day, when the system
crashed at 10 a.m.
Indiana experienced similar problems on those
days, and districts were instructed later in the
week by the state education department to reduce
the number of tests being given by half to
proceed with the state assessments.
Ms. Pemberton said the simple explanation from
Monterey, Calif.-based CTB/McGraw-Hill was that
computer servers could not handle the testing
In a statement, CTB/McGraw-Hill officials said
that earlier practice simulations "did not fully
anticipate the patterns of live student testing
and as a result our system configuration
experienced service interruptions that impacted
the testing process."
Kentucky officials were forced to suspend online
end-of-course exams this week after problems,
including slow or dropped connections, were
reported in about 25 of the state's school
districts, said department of education
spokeswoman Nancy Rodriguez. About 60 percent of
Kentucky's districts deliver those state-mandated
exams online, while the rest use paper-and-pencil
State officials issued a statement saying that
the test vendor, ACT Inc., indicated the problem
occurred when its system became overloaded, and
that capacity for it had been subsequently
increased. Online testing was scheduled to resume
early next week, and state officials said they
would provide districts with guidance on how to
"maximize the testing system's capacity" to avoid
In Minnesota, problems with online testing began
on April 16 and were experienced in multiple
districts across the state, affecting up to 5,000
students, said Charlene Briner, a spokeswoman for
the state education department.
A week later, on April 23, 48 districts reported
disruptions in online testing and the following
day a handful of districts experienced further
problems, she said.
Jon Cohen, an executive vice president of the
AIR, the Washington-based not-for-profit research
and assessment organization that provided the
online tests in Minnesota, said the tests are
designed to allow students to pause and log back
in later if they're experiencing technical
According to AIR data, he said, about 3,000
students out of 15,000 being tested at the time
had slower load times of more than 30 seconds. He
said AIR servers were overloaded not by the
number of test-takers, but by the large amount of
diagnostic data the organization was collecting.
About 95 percent of students in Minnesota take
the math portion of the state tests online, but
only about 30 percent take the reading portion
online, Ms. Briner said. That will change under
the common-core standards, which Minnesota has
adopted for English/language arts but not for
math. All students will eventually have to take
ELA tests online.
Ms. Briner said that in light of the recent
online testing problems, however, the state is
evaluating "whether or not a paper option is
better for accountability testing."
"We believe in moving to a next-generation set of
assessments," she said, "but we're also believers
in making sure people have confidence in the
accuracy of the information we report."
Others were also worried about the future,
particularly when it comes to common-core testing.
Coincidentally, just before the testing problems
arose in Indiana, the state legislature passed
and sent to the governor a bill that would
"pause" common-core implementation there.
Glenda Ritz, Indiana's superintendent of public
instruction, told Education Week that the state
might pull out of the Partnership for Assessment
of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC,
one of two consortia developing common-core tests.
She called the testing problems the state
experienced last month "unacceptable."
Wendy Y. Robinson, the superintendent of the
30,900-student Fort Wayne, Ind., community
schools, said she doesn't know how students,
parents, or educators can now have confidence
using online testing for the common core.
"Teacher pay, school evaluations, student grades
are all going to be tied to a system that none
of us have any faith in anymore," she said.
In Oklahoma, lawmakers such as Rep. Curtis
McDaniel, a Democrat, called for a moratorium on
online testing. "If we can't get this little
piece of the puzzle working in the right
direction, how are we going to get it right for
the whole state or the country?" he said.
"Common core has some good values," he said, "but
we need to re-evaluate what we're doing."
But Chad Colby, a spokesman for PARCC, said that
despite the problems, the advantages of
computer-based testing remain, especially when it
comes to evaluating student knowledge, offering
more interactive testing, and maintaining test
He acknowledged, however, that the tests must be reliable.
"The benefits of computer-based assessments for
students and teachers vastly outweigh the growing
pains and issues in a few states," he said. PARCC
will work to solve any technical problems before
the common-core online tests are rolled out, he
Joe Willhoft, the executive director of Smarter
Balanced Assessment Consortium, the other group
developing common-core tests, said a number of
states in his consortium have already been using
online testing with all their students for years
without major incidents. He said he was confident
any kinks could be worked out before common-core
tests were launched.
But educators around the country remain concerned
about their technical preparedness for
common-core online testing, said Keith R.
Krueger, the CEO of the Washington-based
Consortium for School Networking, or CoSN.
A survey that CoSN released in March found that
preparing for the online tests ranked second
among the top priorities for the group's members.
Though districts have primarily been worried
about their own infrastructure and testing
capacity, now they are realizing that even if
they are well prepared, some problems are out of
their control, Mr. Krueger said.
"I would think of this as the canary in the coal
mine," he said of the recent testing problems.
"These things are not easy to pull off on a
statewide basis. We need to do it in a careful
way and plan for the unexpected."
Mr. Cohen of the AIR, which is working with
Smarter Balanced to deliver adaptive pilot tests
that adjust the difficulty of questions based on
how well a student is answering them, said his
organization's assessments are designed in a way
that allows for glitches and gets students back
on track when they occur.
"The tests need to be designed as online tests
and not as paper tests," he said. "You recognize
that the technology is going to fail somewhere,
sometime, and you build the test to be robust."
Douglas Levin, the executive director of the
State Educational Technology Directors
Association, or SETDA, based in Glen Burnie, Md.,
added that there can be risks with paper tests,
too, such as when floods washed out warehouses of
tests in the past year, he said.
Even so, Mr. Levin-like Ms. Ritz in Indiana-said
the recent problems with online testing were
While there's been an emphasis on getting
districts technologically ready to administer
online testing for the common core, he said,
"there is a need for the assessment industry to
ensure that it has the capacity to serve these
larger numbers of kids with a quality of service
that really has to be very high."
'Doubt and Uncertainty'
In the meantime, districts were just trying to
deal with the logistical and emotional fallout
from the online testing problems.
John Althardt, a spokesman for the 30,000-student
Indianapolis public schools, said students in 50
buildings experienced testing disruptions, and
the district was just focusing on getting through
the testing cycle before thinking about how to
proceed in the future.
"Some of our folks would say they're ready to go
back and use stone tablets at this point," Mr.
In Oklahoma, Superintendent Keith Ballard of the
42,000-student Tulsa public schools, said in a
statement that the testing problems were "nothing
short of disastrous," and added that the district
would be forced to invalidate at least 460 tests.
Ms. Pemberton of the Oklahoma education
department said all students will have an
opportunity to retake the tests if they want to.
Those who scored enough to receive a proficient
grade on the tests do not need to retake them,
even if they did not finish.
Students who were unable to finish English 2 and
3 tests will only be required to take the
multiple-choice portion again, not the writing
part, Ms. Pemberton said.
But the logistics of extending the testing window
and retesting students are significant.
In the Oklahoma City system, one middle school
had bused its students to a local university
because the school lacked enough devices for
students to take the online tests.
In Oklahoma's Edmond district, some schools
filled their gymnasiums with computers and
rearranged bell schedules, said Glenda Choate,
who coordinates educational services and testing
for the 22,500-student district.
"I've been in testing a long time and had a lot
of ups and downs with companies over the years,"
she said, "but the last two days have been the
height of frustration for us."
Education observers will be watching whether the
spate of problems helps prepare both districts
and testing companies for the online common-core
Mr. Levin of SETDA said the testing problems will
provide an additional argument for opponents of
the common core.
"There are people who, for all sorts of reasons,
are looking for ammunition to spread fear and
doubt and uncertainty about the implementation of
common core overall," Mr. Levin said. "I wouldn't
be surprised if this ends up among the arrows in
Education Week Assistant Editor Michele McNeil contributed to this report.
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PHOTO SIDEBAR: A sign on the door indicates ISTEP
testing is going on in a classroom at Emmons
Elementary School in Mishawaka, Ind.-Joe
PHOTO SIDEBAR: Third graders walk out of their
classroom after taking the ISTEP test at Emmons
Elementary School in Mishawaka, Ind. Technical
issues with the state's computer-based testing
program could mean many students' tests are
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244