Online Test Glitches Hit Texas Schools

Texas educators and test vendors are investigating problems with saving student answers.

by Ericka Mellon, Houston Chronicle / March 31, 2016 0
Hand completing a multiple choice exam. Flickr/Alberto G.

(TNS) — Texas public school students who took mandatory, computer-based tests Tuesday faced problems saving their answers, adding stress and confusion to the first day of the high-stakes testing season.

The Texas Education Agency has not determined whether students will have to retake the exams, which are used to determine academic ratings for schools and in some cases factor into grade-level promotion decisions.

The glitches affected students in some of the region's largest districts, including Houston, Cypress-Fairbanks, Klein, Clear Creek, Humble and Dickinson ISDs, as well as those in the Austin and San Antonio areas.

The testing vendor, Educational Testing Services, said in a memo to districts that a preliminary review shows that students' answers may be retrieved but more investigation is needed. The New Jersey-based company is in its first year administering the Texas exams, having won a multimillion-dollar contract over the state's longtime testing firm, Pearson.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath called the online testing problems, affecting an undetermined number of students and districts, "simply unacceptable."

"Kids in the classroom should never suffer from mistakes made by adults," Morath said in a statement. "Educational Testing Service is not new to administering assessments on a large-scale basis, so I cannot accept the transition to a new testing vendor as an excuse for what occurred. "

"TEA also shares in the responsibility in the proper administration of these assessments," he added. "As an agency, we did not live up to that commitment. TEA will continue working with our school districts, charters and ETS to address these and any other outstanding issues."

District officials reported that the problems involved online exams taken by special-education students and those with limited-English proficiency. The exams are part of a regimen known as the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness.

"STAAR is stressful enough for children, let alone these children," said Guy Sconzo, superintendent of the Humble Independent School District. "I cannot imagine the feeling a child has when they experience that."

'Insanity of the System'

Sconzo said students in his district were logged off due to inactivity, and their answers seemed to disappear. In one case, he said, a student taking the writing test appeared to have lost all but the first sentence of her essay, and some of her multiple-choice responses vanished after she logged off to break for lunch.

Humble ISD officials counted 34 students at 14 campuses as experiencing problems with the online tests. Sconzo said he will not make them retest.

"To me it's is just another indication of the insanity of the (testing) system," he said. "It's just not good for kids. We are not going to put a child through that a second time."

Dickinson ISD's assessment director, Jeff Peck, urged staff in a memo Tuesday to document which students experienced problems.

Testing coordinators remained concerned about whether students' answers could be retrieved in the computer system by the Texas Education Agency or Educational Testing Service.

"We contacted TEA and ETS and were told by both entities that though the answers were not visible, the answers had actually been submitted," Vicki James, Klein ISD's executive director of research, said via email. "However, because the answers cannot be seen, there is no way to verify what TEA or ETS states."

According to Educational Testing Services, districts reported problems with students' losing answers on the online exams after they logged off, were kicked off after 30 minutes of inactivity or lost Internet connections.

"ETS understands the severity of this issue and apologizes for the frustration and inconvenience districts, campuses, and regional service centers have experienced throughout the day," the company said in its memo. "This is a critical issue and we have several teams investigating it."

Parents protest

The problems added momentum to an organized effort among parents protesting the high-stakes nature of the exams by keeping their children out of school on testing days.

The local advocacy group Community Voices for Public Education, which supports the testing opt-out movement, reported that 29 students, mostly from Houston ISD, boycotted the exams on Tuesday and instead attended a day of instruction at a community center in the Heights neighborhood.

Sarah Rivlin, a former HISD English teacher who helped run the "Opt Out Academy," said the online testing glitches show "how invalid and unreliable these tests are."

Roughly 120 parents in greater Houston have signed up through the community group's website to opt out this testing season, according to Rivlin, who expects the number to grow.

©2016 the Houston Chronicle, distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.