Indiana popped up on another exclusive list this spring.
But state officials aren’t bragging about it.
Indiana was one of at least four states that reported malfunctions with online education assessment tests. CTB/McGraw-Hill, the state’s contractor, was one of at least three providers involved in the failures.
This year wasn’t unusual. Numerous lapses – including technology failures during testing and late deliveries of materials – have been reported over the years. Even the testing companies, who have written public apologies, have described their failures as unacceptable.
Assessment testing is a multibillion-dollar industry dominated by four players that have captured about 75 percent of the U.S. market. Results of their tests are the basis of life-changing evaluations of students, teachers and schools.
Vocal critics say these assessments shouldn’t have such high stakes. Others say the tests lack sufficient security precautions. The security issue has been the subject of entire reports, including one released in May by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
Putting those concerns aside, quality questions remain.
Robert Schaeffer, a professional critic of assessment testing, contends that testing companies cut corners to win government contracts.
But those companies aren’t alone. They share responsibility for failing taxpayers, said Schaeffer, public information director for FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing. The Boston-based organization promotes valid and appropriate evaluations.
By insisting on low bids, Schaeffer said, state officials who award testing contracts are perpetuating a system that asks for much more than it’s willing to pay for.
Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, is chairman of the Senate Education Committee. He said lawmakers establish the state Education Department’s funding based on its request.
Kruse said legislators would support a more expensive deal if the Education Department asked for it and the testing company could demonstrate that its products and services are higher quality. Education Department officials negotiate assessment contracts.
The senator recalled the previous annual testing contract was about twice as expensive as the current one. That shows the General Assembly is willing to support education while trying to be good stewards of taxpayers money, he said.
You don’t want to pay more than you have to, he said.
CTB/McGraw-Hill, Indiana’s vendor, is the second-largest player in that broken system.
The assessments division is part of an integrated, multinational conglomerate that publishes textbooks, test preparation and test interpretation materials – among other items.
Teasing out the company’s profits from testing is all but impossible.
CTB, a division of McGraw-Hill Education, isn’t granting interviews, a spokesman said.
Schaeffer sees that decision as part of a pattern.
As you often see in big bureaucracies, there is a lack of transparency and a history of product errors, he said. It seems that they take shortcuts to boost the bottom line.
Spurred to improve
The testing companies don’t see it that way.
An executive at CTB’s rival Pearson, the market leader, explained in an emailed statement how his company interacts with the 19 states that buy its large-scale assessment tests.
We are awarded our state assessment work through competitive bid processes after departments of education issue highly detailed requests for assessment services, which have clear and quantifiable processes to evaluate competing proposals. We believe that highly competitive environment spurs us constantly to raise our game, said Walter Sherwood, president of Pearson’s State Services.
Pearson Education Inc. has expanded rapidly in the past decade to more than double the size of its nearest competitor, according to one report.
London-based Pearson PLC, the parent company, entered the assessment and testing field with the acquisition of NCS Inc. in 2000. The explosive growth that followed led to problems equal to – or worse than – what CTB has experienced, Schaeffer said.
We don’t see either as superior to the other, he said.
Sherwood defended his company’s practices.
The Pearson staff works with customers and third-party experts to develop and implement assessments that Sherwood described as rigorous, fair and reliable.
Our No. 1 priority is always the accuracy and validity of our tests, he said.
Pearson works to meet the highest industry standards by undergoing independent reviews and continuously looking for opportunities to improve, he said.
Despite those precautions, Pearson isn’t infallible.
The company issued an apology May 13 after it was discovered that Pearson officials miscalculated the ages of almost 5,000 New York City students who took qualification exams for the city’s gifted and talented program.
We’ve extended our apologies to our colleagues at the NYC Department of Education, and we’re very sorry to all the families and students who have been affected, Scott Smith, president of Pearson Learning Assessment, said in a statement emailed to Reuters.
The Financial Times has quoted the chancellor of the New York City schools as saying the error could lead to the contract’s cancellation.
In an April 30 statement, CTB officials addressed the ISTEP+ testing interruptions that happened in Indiana. The company is in the third year of a four-year, $95 million contract with the state.
CTB said it tested its system. However, our simulations did not fully anticipate the patterns of live student testing. the statement said. The interruptions are not acceptable to the students and educators of Indiana or to CTB/McGraw-Hill.
Pearson’s Sherwood noted his company successfully has delivered more than 429,000 online tests in one day.
A testament to Pearson’s planning is that we are projecting a total delivery volume of 8.1 million online tests in 2013 for 10 different state and national assessment programs, he said.
Trail of failure
Despite its status as a national leader in assessment testing, CTB has a checkered history with Indiana’s public education system dating back at least to 1997, when the company shipped incorrect test packets to 250 schools.
Numerous failures have been reported over time.
In the latest breakdown, the number of students simultaneously taking the online tests overwhelmed the computer network. Some students were booted out of the computer system midtest. Others were given incorrect multiple-choice options.
CTB/McGraw-Hill was forced to add more servers to handle the demand.
Even then, Glenda Ritz, Indiana superintendent of public instruction, extended the testing window and instructed schools to stagger test-taking to reduce strain on the vendor’s computers.
Indiana students in third through eighth grades are tested annually.
Ritz last week announced plans to have an independent firm validate the scores. As a result, ISTEP+ results won’t be available until at least July.
A CTB/McGraw-Hill representative is scheduled to testify Friday in Indianapolis at a legislative hearing that will review ISTEP+ issues.