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Computer Crashes Cause Testing Anxiety in Oklahoma, Minnesota

There's been a good amount of anxiety recently over the upcoming tests aligned to the Common Core State Standards. Part of that concern is based on the nature of the tests themselves, which are advertised as high-tech, online, and computer-adaptive, so that the testing can take less time while providing more detailed information on students' knowledge. But technology in testing can also have a downside, as Oklahoma officials discovered to their chagrin this week.

On April 29, statewide testing of students in Oklahoma stopped dead in its tracks, the Tulsa World reported, because of a server crash in New Jersey. The testing servers belonged to CTB/McGraw-Hill. Although students in a few schools manage to finish the online exams, districts were advised to cancel the online tests, which were being administered to students in grades 3-8 (along with students taking end-of-course tests through grade 12).

The crash came during the last week of public schools' testing "window" in the state, so it's not entirely clear, according to K-12 officials quoted in the piece, exactly how schools will regroup and make sure the right tests are administered. For example, Bob Ehrle, a counselor at an Oklahoma middle school, said some reading tests may have to be tossed, since students saw the tests before the servers crashed. State education department officials have said that incomplete tests will have to be finished, in most cases, through old-fashioned pencil and paper, but there are doubts as to whether CTB/McGraw-Hill could get these exams to the schools on time. Schools' testing window closes on May 3.

Oklahoma isn't the only state to experience computer-related problems with its testing regimen. Earlier this month in Minnesota, a computer hiccup stopped students from either beginning or finishing online versions of the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment—the problem was with the American Institutes for Research, the testing contractor for the state. Of 15,000 students affected by the glitch, about 9,000 were able to finish the test. AIR is also a testing contractor for Delaware, Hawaii, and Oregon. (In an apparent coincidence, Minnesota lawmakers have been debating whether to eliminate "high-stakes" testing in the state, specifically whether to get rid of minimum testing cut scores and graduation tests. It's hard to imagine that the AIR computer problems helped testing supporters.)

And testing company Pearson recently got into trouble for errors it made on tests related to determining gifted and talented status in New York City schools.

FairTest, a Jamaica Plain, Mass.-based group opposed to making high-stakes decisions based on standardized exams, sums up concerns based on these incidents this way: "The same old firms, including Pearson, Educational Testing Service and CTB/McGraw-Hill, will produce the [common core] tests. These corporations have long histories of mistakes and incompetence. The multi-national conglomerate Pearson, for example, has been responsible for poor-quality items, scoring errors, computer system crashes and missed deadlines."

Of course, when the positives and potential of online and computer-based testing are outlined, many may think technology bumps and potholes along the way are worth the long-term benefit, as my colleague Michelle Davis wrote for Digital Directions last fall: "The biggest advantage to a computer-adaptive test, experts say, is the ability to evaluate all students at their own levels. Because of that, students often report that they are more engaged with the test and find it more interesting," according to Dirk Mattson, the executive director for K-12 assessment at Educational Testing Service.

The headlines may make state education departments examine their own backup plans for test administration if computer crashes occur. Of course, once the common core tests are fully online in the 2014-15 school year, a few computer crashes could, in theory, affect tens of thousands of students across dozens of states.

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