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Technology concerns arise as state approaches ISTEP testing

February 4, 2016
Indiana students haven’t begun answering a single question on the next round of the standardized ISTEP exam, and already policymakers are asking whether the technology used to administer the test is up to the challenge.

This year’s exam, created for the first time by the British testing company Pearson, will be largely administered on computers instead of on paper. That has educators—stung by a string of recent testing problems—on edge about possible flaws in the technology.

The Indiana State Board of Education devoted much of its meeting Wednesday grilling Rich Young, the vice president of state services for Pearson, about the merits of online tests vs. those done on paper. Indiana signed a two-year contract with Pearson last year to create the state’s ISTEP test after years of computer glitches and scoring problems plagued previous agreements with testing company CTB, both in Indiana and across the country.

Vince Bertram, a state board member and CEO of project-based learning not-for-profit Project Lead the Way, seemed ready to throw in the towel on online tests, saying technology isn’t useful when it doesn’t work.

“I believe in technology, but I don’t believe in having a technology system that doesn’t work,” Bertram said. “Technology is becoming the barrier to the credibility of the system.”

But Indiana Deputy Superintendent Danielle Shockey said that recent “stress tests” of Pearson’s testing software across the state went well, despite problems earlier in January.

“Pearson says there were no widespread issues with the (Jan. 29) test,” Shockey said. “In fact, over the course of Friday’s test, they recorded more than 180,000 logins and a peak of 50,000 concurrent users—more than double the volume of the first readiness day.”

Board members still worried that the lack of widespread problems didn’t mean they weren’t present for some districts. Lee Ann Kwiatkowski, a board member and assistant superintendent in Warren Township, said her district was one where students taking the computer practice tests were repeatedly interrupted.

“Even if it only takes one second to resume a student (test) … it puts stress on the student, on the teacher, on the principal,” Kwiatkowski said. “So it may be an easy fix to resume them, but it still can be problematic.”

But it might not make sense for the state to abandon online testing altogether, largely because of two criticisms educators and policymakers already have with state testing: cost and time.

Young said paper tests cost $6 to $8 more than online tests per student, per test. Although Indiana schools can request paper tests, the state has encouraged as many tests to be taken online as possible. About 500,000 students took ISTEP last year. Switching the whole state to paper could boost costs by $3 million to $4 million.

Plus, Young said, it takes more time to collect, organize and grade paper tests. He estimated it might be a month longer for paper test results to be delivered than for online tests.

“It is more expensive, ultimately, to have lots of manual effort that goes into delivering an assessment like that,” Young said. “It takes time to ship things, to scan them, to score them.”

As schools approach the first ISTEP testing date later this month, Young said Pearson would be available to help them work through any computer issues. For example, he said, representatives were visiting Warren this week to address problems schools saw last week.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz said Indiana is still in the process of pursuing a lawsuit against CTB for 2015’s scoring delays. Schools typically get scores back during the summer, but last year scores weren’t finalized and released until December.

“Our legal team is still working on that with the Attorney General’s Office,” Ritz said.

An attorney was assigned to the case and is investigating whether the contract with CTB included provisions about test score delays, an education department official added.

CTB encountered multiple problems with ISTEP in recent years, most alarmingly in 2013, when about 78,000 Indiana students taking the test on computers were interrupted over the course of several days. It was the third consecutive year the online ISTEP had such troubles. The state sought damages and won $13 million from the company for the 2013 issues.

Earlier this year, The Indianapolis Star reported that possible scoring problems from CTB could have led to thousands of improperly scored student tests.

The board on Wednesday also approved A-F accountability grades for school districts, which were largely unchanged from 2014. It plans to schedule public hearings for schools in state takeover and “quality reviews” for those that have earned four years of F-grades.

Ritz said the state is still working to schedule a second February meeting to discuss the board’s independent review of the 2015 ISTEP. She said the board also plans to discuss how the state’s new A-F grading system would measure student improvement on exams from one year to the next.

Chalkbeat Indiana is a not-for-profit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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