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NCLB Outrages

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Ohanian Comment: Here's further evidence that the testing industry incompetence will get worse: Our source said the capacity problem pushes more inexperienced people into key posts, just one of many problems now evident as the industry buckles, as predicted, under the weight of NCLB’s testing requirements.

By Scott Elliott<

I just can’t help but say, “we told you so.”

In the past two days, the testing industry’s stress fractures have begun to break loose in a series of stories from major newspapers.

But if you’re a regular reader of the Dayton Daily News, you knew this would happen.

The hot news of the day sounds a lot like our award winning series from 2004 about the problems of standardized testing in the NCLB era. Back then we said:

One question is whether the testing companies can keep up with the demand without compromising quality. Already, there have been embarrassing errors.

And this, which includes a remarkable quote from Ramsey Selden, vice president of a major U.S. testing company:

The mandates are squeezing the handful of companies that supply virtually the entire nation with standardized tests. Just seven companies account for 85 percent of the test-building market, with industry titans Harcourt Educational Measurement in Texas, Minnesota-based NCS/Pearson Educational Measurement and CTB/McGraw Hill in California handling two-thirds of the workload. “All of the companies are running at capacity or beyond it,” Selden said. “Companies are bumping into each other and competing against each other for the same people.”

If they were running beyond capacity two years ago, what’s happening now? As you might expect, a lot of bad things.

The Hartford Courant wrote Thursday about another major scoring problem, this time on Connecticut state test by Harcourt, one of the testing industry big dogs.

The problems, which have happened to Connecticut before, have enraged the state’s education commissioner, Betty Sternberg. Here’s an excerpt from the Courant story:

The latest problem is another sign of strain on an overburdened testing industry, Sternberg said.

Scoring problems have cropped up across the country. Only a year ago, Connecticut dumped another testing company that ran into numerous delays and scoring problems on a state test for elementary and middle school students. More recently, a test contractor reported erroneous scores for thousands of students who took the SAT college entrance exam last fall.

Some educators fear that the testing industry will be strained even further as Connecticut and other states undergo a broad expansion of testing under No Child Left Behind, which calls for a shake-up of schools that fail to meet standards.

“It’s not a problem peculiar to Harcourt,” Sternberg said. “Mis-scoring tests, having delays - there’s no company that hasn’t had something happen in those areas.”

The issue has caught the attention of U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who met recently with testing industry executives about the industry’s capacity to handle the growing volume of tests.

Meanwhile, some New York lawmakers are fed up with scoring problems and may vote to regulate testing in the state, the New York Times reported Thursday.

Then on Friday, the Times reports that there aren’t enough test experts around, which has created a bidding war among the companies for the experts that are out there. New psychometricians are leaving graduate schools and walking into high-paid, high-ranking jobs with little experience.

The Times piece on test experts reminded me of a story one of our test industry sources told us when we were reporting the series. The source was consulting with a small state (think South Dakota, Wyoming, etc.) that was considering bids from testing companies to create and score its new state tests to comply with NCLB.

The consultant described how small teams from the testing companies gave presentations. It was embarrassing, he said. The teams couldn’t answer many of their questions. The bottom line was that the test companies, focused on big states with lucrative contracts like California, New York, Texas or Ohio, send not the B or C team out to the small states, but the rookies — inexperienced recent graduates.

Our source said the capacity problem pushes more inexperienced people into key posts, just one of many problems now evident as the industry buckles, as predicted, under the weight of NCLB’s testing requirements.

OK, so we’ve been writing for two years that these problems would come, and now they are here. The interesting thing is to see lawmakers and state officials — even U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings — now beginning to demand improvements. But there are no easy solutions to the problems of capacity in the test industry.

On the other hand, if you’re good at math you might consider a graduate program in psychometrics. If you can get the degree, you can’t lose.

— Scott Elliott
Dayton Daily News


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