By guest blogger Michelle R. Davis
Oklahoma educators and students experienced a bit of déjà vu this week, after widespread online testing problems, similar to technical failures that occurred last year, meant some students had difficulty completing state tests.
Students in Florida also found themselves dealing with computer glitches that wouldn't allow them to log in to online tests or slowed the load time of test questions, and state officials suspended testing Tuesday. The state's test provider, Pearson, said its system registered "degraded administrative functions" and the company was working to fix the problems.
About 8,100 Oklahoma students in grades six through 12 experienced online testing disruptions Monday which have been linked to testing provider CTB/McGraw Hill. Students found themselves logged out of tests, had difficulty logging back in, and some were unable to complete testing, educators said. The Oklahoma State Department of Education suspended testing on Monday by mid-morning. About 11,000 Oklahoma students were able to complete testing that day, the department said.
Testing provider CTB/McGraw-Hill apologized and attributed the disruptions to company hardware malfunctions, described in a release as "an intermittent service interruption in our redundant network addressing service" and said the issue had been corrected.
The company also noted that the problems Monday were unrelated to the overload of servers which caused widespread problems last spring in online testing in Oklahoma and Indiana, and that CTB/McGraw-Hill had beefed up its technology infrastructure since then. Last year thousands of students in those states experienced similar glitches, including slow loading times and getting closed out of tests. Both Oklahoma and Indiana extended the testing window to allow districts to finish testing.
This year, Indiana's testing window begins next week, April 28.
But CTB/McGraw-Hill's explanation of technical difficulties didn't assuage some educators. Keith Ballard, the superintendent of the 42,000-student Tulsa public schools, said about 2,000 district students in grades six through 12 were affected by the testing problems and called the problems a "colossal meltdown" following last year's troubles. Because of an emphasis on high-stakes testing in the state "the stakes are just huge," he said. "The frustration was at an extreme level."
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 widespread problems. Then, Oklahoma education officials did not believe there was enough time to rebid the contract for assessments and change vendors, said Oklahoma department of education spokeswoman Tricia Pemberton.
Last year, CTB/McGraw-Hill paid more than $1.2 million to the state to cover damages suffered by students and teachers during the spring testing window.
Barresi said she will recommend that the State Board of Education not renew CTB/McGraw-Hill's contract for the next fiscal year. "It is an understatement to say I am frustrated. It is an understatement to say I am outraged," Barresi said at a news conference, calling the problems "a 100 percent failing of CTB."
Pemberton said the state department of education is currently allowing districts to decide how to move forward with students whose testing was disrupted. Ballard said he has not yet decided how to proceed.
"We're easing back into the testing right now," he said. "I want to see how it goes and whether we'll have to invalidate more tests. This has been catastrophic for students."
In Florida, by the end of the day Tuesday, 26 districts reported disruptions to state online testing, according to Joe Follick, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Education.
For example, in the 69,000-student Pasco school district in Land O' Lakes, Fla., high school students began experiencing online testing problems as early as 7:30 a.m. Tuesday, said district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe. It became clear the problems were district-wide and by 8:15 a.m. Pasco officials suggested principals suspend testing.
State education officials were told by Pearson that "the underlying problem was a national issue with Internet service," and that testing could continue for the rest of the week, Follick wrote in an email. In a memo to districts, state officials suggested that districts having trouble with testing suspend assessments until given a green light by the Florida Department of Education. Districts with no problems should continue testing on a normal schedule. The state is considering whether to add testing times for districts that need them, Follick wrote.
Pearson's reassurances did not seem to placate Pam Stewart, the Florida education commissioner. In a letter to Walter Sherwood, Pearson's president of state services, Stewart wrote that Pearson seemed to minimize the problems experienced by students and teachers. "This failure is inexcusable," she wrote. "Florida's students and teachers work too hard on learning to be distracted by these needless and avoidable technological issues."
Stewart pledged to pursue damages and remedies that may be available as a result of the company's failure to fulfill its contract.
Bob Schaeffer, the public education director of the Jamaica Plain, Mass.-based FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, said all these problems with technology related to online testing show that "the market has gotten ahead of the developing and testing of the product." He said online testing problems are likely to taint this new form of assessment.
"It may undermine the credibility of online testing," he said. "Certainly in the short run it will."
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