Montana Lets Schools Cancel Smarter Balanced Testing After Technical Woes
Following technical problems with its administration of the Smarter Balanced tests, the Montana education department has announced that Smarter Balanced testing will be optional for districts this spring.
On April 15, Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau announced that Smarter Balanced tests, which are aligned to the Common Core State Standards, would be voluntary because of the delay to the opening of the testing window, as well as issues with the servers designed to handle the Smarter Balanced online testing. In a press release, Juneau said that problems have gone on for about four weeks and led to a great deal of frustration in districts.
The decision impacts testing in grades 3-8 and 11 in English/language arts and math.
"Given the initial delays in the testing rollout, followed by computer server issues this week, I felt that it would be in the best interest of our students and schools to relieve schools from the requirement of 100% participation in the assessment," said Juneau, adding that she still hopes that schools will test as many students as they can.
Juneau has also asked districts to share their plans for any further testing with her department, including which schools and grades will be tested. The press release doesn't say whether any districts that might have only managed to administer part of the exam to students will have to finish their administration of the test.
Other States' Problems
Nevada and North Dakota have also experienced problems with the start of their Smarter Balanced testing windows—those two states, as well as Montana, are using Measured Progress as their testing vendor. I've contacted Nevada and North Dakota to see if they're experiencing further technical problems with Smarter Balanced testing, and if they've decided or are considering letting districts cancel the test; I didn't hear back from them immediately. I've also reached out to Measured Progress for comment.
Nevada halted Smarter Balanced testing on April 14 due to what Steve Canavero, a deputy superintendent for the Nevada department, called "a spike in student participation." At some point that morning, students attempting to start new Smarter Balanced tests encountered an error message. As of mid-afternoon on April 15, testing had not resumed.
And in North Dakota, testing was halted for about 20 minutes on April 14 due to what Superintendent Kirsten Baesler called "glitches." Around mid-day on April 15, however, testing in the state had been "fully restored" according to the state's assessment portal.
When I wrote about testing woes in various states on March 27, Montana had delayed the start of its Smarter Balanced testing window twice, with the postponement affecting thousands of students.
This is a potentially big headache for Montana when it comes to federal education law. The No Child Left Behind Act requires that all students in a state take the same test at the same grade levels (Montana does not have a waiver from NCLB). How will Montana deal with that federal requirement if they're letting districts cancel Smarter Balanced testing?
'We Were Prepared'
When I talked with Juneau, she said that she doesn't yet have a count of how many students have completed the test, completed only part of the test, or how many schools would ultimately go ahead with Smarter Balanced exams. However, she did say that based on what she's heard, "Most schools are actually going to move forward with testing."
She added that students who only managed to complete part of the test before technical problems kicked in should be able to resume their work if their schools continue testing. Measured Progress' servers should have saved students' work, Juneau said.
According to Juneau, the state's two-week delay of Smarter Balanced testing (from March 18 to March 30) was due to problems with transferring the bank of test items between the American Institutes for Research and Measured Progress. But that problem was ultimately resolved, and from March 30 until April 14, she said, testing had gone smoothly.
The most recent problem, she said, was that too many students from Montana, Nevada, and North Dakota logged onto Measured Progress' servers at once. Measured Progress is working to set aside a certain share of its servers just for Montana's use to solve the problem for those Montana schools that want to continue testing, according to Juneau.
Measured Progress was the state's vendor for its previous statewide assessments, and Juneau said her state has typically had a good experienced with Measured Progress.
Montana got permission from the U.S. Department of Education to use Smarter Balanced field tests as a replacement for their typical state exams last year. Given that, I asked why that experience hadn't better prepared the state for the tests, and she responded, "We were prepared. You would think that would be the way it goes."
As for problems the state might face under NCLB because of her decision, Juneau essentially told me that because almost none of Montana's schools are due to meet adequate yearly progress requirements any way, she's not particularly concerned about the impact lower participation rates on Smarter Balanced would affect her state's compliance with NCLB. But she did say she's contacted the U.S. Department of Education about Montana's situation.
Beyond Server Capacity
In a statement issued April 15, Measured Progress said it was working with Smarter Balanced to fix the problems in its three client states
"Measured Progress increased server capacity well beyond the specifications provided by Smarter Balanced and its platform vendor. However, even with the increased number of servers, the platform does not support the number of students currently accessing the system," the organization said in the statement. (The "platform vendor" is a reference to AIR.)
The group added that "thousands of students" had successfully completed Smarter Balanced tests over the last several weeks, but did not provide an exact number.
Photo: Montana State Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau addresses the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., in 2012. J. Scott Applewhite/AP-File