|INDIANAPOLIS — School districts across several states are rescheduling high-stakes tests that judge student proficiency and even determine teachers' pay because of technical problems involving the test administrators' computer systems.
Thousands of students in Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota and Oklahoma have been kicked offline while taking tests in recent weeks, postponing the testing schools planned for months and raising concerns about whether the glitches will affect scores.
"There's been pep rallies and spirit weeks all getting ready for this. It's like showing up for the big game and then the basketball is deflated," said Jason Zook, a fifth-grade teacher at Brown Intermediate Center in South Bend, Ind.
Many frustrated students have been reduced to tears and administrators are boiling over, calling the problems "disastrous" and "unacceptable" at a time when test results count so heavily toward schools' ratings under the federal No Child Left Behind law. In places such as Indiana, where former Gov. Mitch Daniels approved changes tying teachers' merit pay to student test scores, the pressure is even greater.
"Teachers are extremely frustrated because of the high-stakes nature of this test," said Jeff Sherrill, principal at Emmons Elementary School in Mishawaka, Ind. "They know they're going to be judged on this and their schools are going to be judged on this. Certainly it's changed the outcome of the testing, because there's no way it's not going to."
CTB/McGraw-Hill is the contractor in Indiana and Oklahoma and administers statewide standardized tests in eight other states. Kentucky Department of Education spokeswoman Nancy Rodriguez said its vendor, ACT Inc., reported online issues in Kentucky and Alabama. American Institutes for Research, or AIR, is the contractor in Minnesota.
Kentucky Department of Education Associate Commissioner Ken Draut said the agency suspended online testing through at least Thursday after about 25 districts reported slow and dropped connections from the ACT Vantage testing system used to administer end-of-course assessments for students taking English II, Algebra II, biology and U.S. history. About 60 percent of Kentucky districts administer the tests online.
In Indiana, McGraw-Hill is in the third year of a four-year, $95 million contract, while in Oklahoma, it has a one-year, $16 million contract with an option to renew an additional four years. Minnesota's $61 million, three-year contract with AIR expires this year. Rodriguez, reached at home, said she did not know the terms of Kentucky's ACT contract.
"I think the only thing the ... states have in common is that technology is not infallible," said Charlene Briner, chief of staff of the Minnesota Department of Education, which temporarily suspended testing after the first disruption April 16.
Briner said the glitches affected many students taking the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment, which provides much of the data the state uses to judge school performance.
AIR executive vice president Jon Cohen attributed the first disruption to a problem with its servers, which have been fixed. The company is not yet sure what caused a subsequent Internet interruption, but Cohen said there wasn't a problem at AIR's data center.
Cohen said students' performance shouldn't be affected by interrupted tests, which are designed to be paused and resumed.
Indiana suspended testing Monday and Tuesday, the same days Oklahoma reported problems.
One Oklahoma lawmaker called for a moratorium on testing this year.
"We'll just start over next year when the testing provider has its act together," said Rep. Curtis McDaniel, D-Smithville, a longtime school administrator. "It's just not fair to these students to make them re-take tests two or three times or accept a score based on a partial test that may or may not be accurate because of technology problems."
Oklahoma State Superintendent Janet Barresi said the department is working to remedy the problem and then will determine "how to proceed with accommodations for the districts."
CTB/McGraw-Hill spokesman Dan Sieger said by email Wednesday that the company was focused on ensuring testing stability and regrets the "impact on these schools and students." The company ran simulations to prepare for the tests in Indiana but did not "fully anticipate the patterns of live student testing."
"The interruptions are not acceptable to students and educators or to CTB/McGraw-Hill," the statement said.
The company said students interrupted midway through testing would be able to pick up where they left off. Still, some worried whether all answers were recorded.
Rachel Burke of Indianapolis said the computer had indicated her daughter, Katherine, a fifth-grader at Raymond Park Intermediate Academy, finished a section of the test with 23 questions just as it crashed Monday. But she believes there should have been 30 questions.
"So she thinks she was finished, but she's not sure," Burke said.
Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz said there's "no question" the state will have to review any data gathered in the past few days, when at least 27,000 third- through eighth-grade students were kicked offline during tests.
"After we get everybody assessed, we're going to have to look at the validity of the assessments themselves," Ritz said.
Testing resumed Wednesday with minimal disruptions after districts halved the number of students taking the online tests at any one time, Ritz said.
This isn't the first time CTB/McGraw-Hill has struggled with assessments.
The Connecticut Department of Education fined CTB/McGraw-Hill $300,000 in 2004 for errors and delays in scoring its Mastery Test, the largest fine allowed under the state's contract.
In 2011, up to 10,000 Indiana students statewide were logged off and some were unable to log back in for up to an hour while taking the test. The state invalidated 215 scores that year because they were lower than expected.
About 9,000 Indiana students were kicked offline during the test last year.
Indiana and Oklahoma have extended this year's testing deadlines to ensure schools have enough time to complete the exams.
In Minnesota, Briner said it's too early to speculate about the impact of the problems. She said testing is still going on across the state.
"We're monitoring the situation on a daily if not hourly basis," she said.