Experts: U.S. testing companies "buckling" under weight of NCLB
by Megan Reichgott
CHICAGO - To motivate juniors on last April's assessment exams, Springfield High School offered coveted lockers, parking spaces near the door and free prom tickets as incentives for good scores.
But the incentives at the central Illinois school went unclaimed until earlier this month, when Illinois finally published its 2006 test scores - more than four months after they were due.
Critics pounced on Harcourt Assessment Inc., which lost most of its $44.5 million state contract over delays - caused by everything from shipping problems to missing test pages and scoring errors - that made Illinois the last state in the nation to release scores used to judge schools under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
But experts say problems are more widespread, and poised to get worse. A handful of companies create, print and score most of the tests in the U.S., and they're struggling with a workload that has exploded since President Bush signed the five-year-old education reform package.
"The testing industry in the U.S. is buckling under the weight of NCLB demands," said Thomas Toch, co-director of Education Sector, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
When Education Sector surveyed 23 states in 2006, it found that 35 percent of testing offices in those states have experienced "significant" errors with scoring and 20 percent didn't get results "in a timely fashion."
Illinois saw more problems this month, when students took achievement tests that contained as many as 13 errors, officials said. But Illinois isn't the only state that's experienced difficulties:
_ Connecticut last year fined its testing company $80,000 after a processing error caused wrong scores for 355 students on the 2005 test. The problem came a year after the state canceled its contract with another company after scoring problems caused a five-month delay in reporting scores.
_The Texas Education Agency passed 4,160 10th-graders who initially failed the math section of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills in 2003 after officials discovered a test question had more than one correct answer.
_Michigan Educational Assessment Program results were delayed last year, and there were previous problems under another contractor. In 2003, 3,400 MEAP scores were delivered months late and nearly 1,000 results went missing.
_Alabama education officials said a testing company mistakenly failed some schools while passing others that should have failed, after scoring problems on the 2005 assessment test.
_In Oregon, the state Education Department complained that a computerized state assessment test was plagued by system problems. The testing company later terminated its contract with the state, claiming it was owed back payments, and the state sued the company for breach of contract. Now, thousands of students who haven't completed online exams will take them in May using paper and pencil.
Causes of the problems are multipronged, testing company and education experts say.
The number of students being tested has risen sharply since the No Child Left Behind Act took effect. Illinois, for example, used to test only third, fifth and eight graders but now tests students in third through eighth grades.
To meet NCLB requirements, states administered 45 million exams by spring 2006, and the number keeps rising. By the end of the 2007-2008 school year, it will reach about 56 million tests.
What's more, each state has its own test, and many want them customized, said Michael Hansen, chief executive officer of Harcourt Assessment, which no longer administers Illinois' tests but still is involved in developing and grading them. Before NCLB was signed into law, states used exams like the Stanford Achievement Test, and publishers created new tests every six to eight years.
"Not only (have) states wanted different content in terms of the tests, but they also have very many different requirements as to logistics, delivery, look and feel, color, how the questions are organized, horizontal, vertical ... you name it, it was on the table," Hansen said.
On top of that, experts say, are rigid NCLB-driven deadlines.
"That means March and April we are completely ... at peak capacity and so is every one of our competitors," Hansen said. "But also then when the test results come in, they (schools) need the test results back as soon as possible ... so the turnaround from the time that the test is taken, to (when) we need to report the results is extremely tight and it's getting tighter and tighter."
Others say the problems are exacerbated by little competition or regulation.
The NCLB testing industry is dominated by four companies: San Antonio, Texas-based Harcourt; Monterey, Calif.-based CTB/McGraw-Hill; Iowa City, Iowa-based Pearson Educational Measurement and Itasca, Ill.-based Riverside Publishing.
"It's not entirely a monopoly, but it is an oligopoly, with very little regulation," said Walter Haney, professor at the Center for the Study of Testing Evaluation and Educational Policy at Boston College.
Both state education departments and testing companies are "overtaxed and bursting at the seams," said Becky Watts, former chief of staff at the Illinois State Board of Education.
"It's logical. Any time you have a relatively small industry ... it's a tall order. What is demanded of the testing industry, what is demanded of the states, it's huge," Watts said.
Between 2002 and 2008, states will spend between $1.9 billion and $5.3 billion to develop, score and report NCLB-required tests, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office. Ultimately, the price tag depends on whether states prefer exams with open-ended questions - which are hand-scored and more costly - or multiple-choice questions.
But it's a mistake to blame only the vendors for the problems when lawmakers are notorious misers in funding state testing agencies, said Toch, from Education Sector.
States spend less than a quarter of 1 percent of school revenue - or between $10 to $30 a student - on testing programs, even though federal, state and local spending per pupil adds up to more than $8,000 a year, Toch said.
"That's not enough to produce high-quality tests in the tight timelines that NCLB requires. It's ludicrous," Toch said.
The Office of Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Education said last year it would study whether high-stakes tests need federal oversight. The office has not begun working on the study, but officials hoped to do so this year, said spokeswoman Catherine Grant.
Last year, Congress gave states $408 million to develop standardized testing under NCLB, but the states can use the money in lots of ways, and many of them use it for tasks unrelated to test-building, Toch said.
The U.S. Department of Education must be more active, Toch said.
"Instead, Secretary (Margaret) Spellings has largely washed her hands of this problem, said it's a state problem, which is a peculiar ... response because it's the federal government that has required the states to take these actions," Toch said.
Associated Press wire
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