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
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
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 testing days.
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
April 16: Schools reported widespread problems with online
testing. Up to 5,000 students' tests were disrupted.
April 17: Testing resumed.
April 23: Test interruptions resurfaced. About 48
districts reported slow loading times or other problems.
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 irregularities.
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 education.
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
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
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 assessments.
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 additional
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
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 problems.
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
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
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 Š are all going
to be tied to a system that none of us have any faith in anymore,"
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
"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 security.
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 added.
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
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.
"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
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
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 unacceptable.
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. Althardt said.
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
"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
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 their
Education Week Assistant Editor Michele McNeil contributed to this
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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,
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 invalidated.-Joe
Jerry P. Becker
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