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Illinois schools get taste of testing firms' increasing problems

Ohanian Comment: The conclusion drawn about these testing snafus is that the companies will have to shape up, and to do that, they'll have to charge the states more money. More money for testing means less money for library books, the arts, and so on.

By Georgina Gustin

State testing in Illinois got off to a rocky start last week after school districts across the state discovered missing and flawed tests.

Teachers were angry. Administrators were frustrated. In districts that were forced to postpone the tests, students, who had spent months preparing, felt let down. Illinois officials questioned whether they should fire Texas-based Harcourt Assessment Inc., the company hired to administer the tests.

"I'm not sure they were ready for this, for the magnitude and the time frame," said Gary Huwer, the principal at Millstadt Consolidated School, referring to Harcourt. "This was their first year, so there were still some bugs out there. They probably rushed things, and in the process, mistakes were made."

Millstadt had to postpone testing by one week and still hadn't received some materials when testing began last Monday. During testing, one student found a miscollated test book, one of 65 Harcourt said were mistakenly distributed in Illinois.

Flawed tests and glitches are nothing new, educators say. But as testing requirements expand under the federal No Child Left Behind law, testing companies have become increasingly overwhelmed, and more problems have surfaced in states around the country, educators say.

In Missouri, where state testing starts today, officials are keeping their fingers crossed, hoping to avoid the same fate.

"Currently the country is putting high hopes on reforming education through testing," said Jack Jennings, president of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy, which labels itself a nonpartisan group that monitors education reform movements. "One result is that it's putting enormous strain on the testing industry. There are only six major (testing) companies, and they can only expand so fast. That's why you're seeing all these mistakes."

That strain has increased this year because, for the first time, federal law is requiring that students from the third through the eighth grades get tested in reading and math, as well as one high school grade. Next year, in addition to reading and math, science will be added to schools' testing burdens under federal law.

"They're overwhelmed," said Joyce Karon, a member of the Illinois State Board of Education, referring to the testing companies. "You're more than doubling the number of kids being tested."

A Harcourt spokesman blamed delays in getting the materials to the school on a corresponding delay in the test development process. The spokesman did say that test results should be in the hands of state officials by June 1.

In Alabama last week, education officials announced that Harcourt had made scoring errors on 2,500 tests, which put four schools on probation when they met performance targets, and gave 10 schools passing marks when they didn't meet targets. In February, Connecticut officials imposed an $80,000 fine on the company after it provided incorrect scores for 355 students. Harcourt also lost contracts in Nevada and Hawaii after errors were discovered there.

But problems aren't exclusive to Harcourt.

"Harcourt is no worse or better than the others. It's an industry-wide problem," said Robert Shaeffer of FairTest, a group that advocates standardized testing reform. "It's typical. A state gets set up with its current contract, and then picks up another contract. It's musical chairs."

In 2004, Illinois State Board of Education members voted unanimously to switch to Harcourt from Pearson Educational Measurement, another of the major testing companies. The board awarded Harcourt, which was represented by lobbyist John Wyma, a former congressional aide to Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich, a five-year, $45 million contract. Pearson complained, alleging the state should rebid the contract because testing requirements had changed since it had requested proposals.

Karon said Harcourt came out on top after a rigorous examination of six testing companies.

"Every state has experienced some difficulty, no matter what they did, so you have to go with your best guess," she said. "There aren't that many (testing companies)."

In a culture of high-stakes standardized testing, where schools' fates and finances can hang on results, the testing industry has come under serious scrutiny. But it's too easy to point the finger at the companies alone, some say.

"Clearly, with No Child Left Behind, that was one of the early concerns: Do we have the capacity, not just with the testing companies, but with the state agencies, to do this?" said Don Long, director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, an organization of state education leaders.

Long said the process that states go through in requesting proposals from companies also needs to improve. "The more detailed and specialized and clear they can be, the better their response will be," he said.

Long added that some of the major companies are restructuring to address the growing demands of the federal mandates.

"Because it's high-stakes, there's obviously a lot of concern and scrutiny," Long said. "I would really put them up against any industry. It's just that their mistakes are really magnified. Their mistakes are really a very small percentage of the volume of tests."

Nonetheless, educators say, the industry will have to respond.

"The president is not going to back down on No Child Left Behind," said Jennings, of the Center on Education Policy. "That means these testing companies are going to have to improve very quickly, which will probably mean they'll have to charge the states more."

ggustin@post-dispatch.com

— Georgina Gustin
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
2006-03-26


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