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Testing service apologizes for 'disastrous' disruptions of students' online exams

The nation’s second largest educational testing service apologized Wednesday for computer issues that disrupted federally-mandated online tests for thousands of students in Indiana and Oklahoma this week –  exams that are already controversial for their outsize role in determining school funding, student evaluations and teacher salaries.

 “We sincerely regret the problems we have caused,” said a spokesperson for California-based CTB/McGraw-Hill, which holds contracts  or testing  in all 50 states and controls nearly 40 percent of the market. “We regret the impact … (of) system interruptions” and “have made changes to correct the situation.”

State officials, meanwhile, said they would hold CTB/McGraw-Hill accountable, and raised the possibility of financial penalties. 

Three-thousand students in Oklahoma and 30,000 in Indiana lost their computer connections during testing on Monday and Tuesday mornings, according to state officials. CTB McGraw Hill said that the outage in Indiana occurred because “our simulations did not fully anticipate the patterns of live student testing” – the third straight year that Indiana students have experienced service interruptions during online testing administered by the company.

Both states resumed the federally-mandated testing of third through eighth-graders Wednesday and reported no further incidents, but only after Indiana complied with a request from CTB/McGraw-Hill to cut the number of students taking the state’s ISTEP (Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress) test in half – a precaution that the Department of Education said it will also take on Thursday.

At a morning meeting, members of the Indiana Board of Education called the situation “disastrous,” saying the test results were “tainted” and that the interruptions added to the anxiety of students already stressed by the high-stakes examinations.

At least two members of the board asked whether CTB/McGraw-Hill was living up to its four-year, $95 million contract, with Tony Walker calling the company’s performance “almost a breach.” “The vendor that botched the (test) should have to pay the state a portion of the money,” said Walker.

'The only focus ... a fair test'

The state’s contract allows for damages of up to $250,000 per day, not to exceed 10 percent of the value of the contract, for “failure to deliver . . . uninterrupted … availability.” State Department of Education spokesman Daniel Altman told NBC News that officials had not yet decided whether to ask for financial penalties.

“The only focus right now is getting the tests finished and making sure students get to take a fair test,” said Altman.

Indiana’s problems began Monday about 10 a.m. ET, when grade-schoolers taking the ISTEP test began to experience interruptions. “A few started seeing an ‘As the World Turns’ kind of globe on their screens, and then the problem was throughout the room,” said Teresa Meredith, a kindergarten teacher in the Shelbyville schools and the vice president of the Indiana State Teachers Association. Some parts of Indiana are on Central Time, and the crash started “right when those students started coming online at 9 a.m.,” she said.

One Indiana fourth-grader  was interrupted six times before completing the test successfully, according to one Twitter account, while others were unable to finish at all.

CTB/McGraw Hill increased server capacity on Monday evening and on Tuesday Indiana students tried again. This time, the problems didn’t become severe until 11 a.m., said Meredith. She said her own daughter, a seventh-grader in a rural school district, had answered most of the questions on the test when the problems began.

“She said, ‘Mom, I got through with question 21 and then I saw the globe,’” recounted Meredith. Before she was able to raise her hand and ask for help the test moved on to the next question and she finished “as fast as she could,” Meredith said.

On Tuesday evening, CTB/McGraw-Hill asked Indiana officials to cut the number of students taking the test on Wednesday by 50 percent. Throughout Wednesday, schools across the state tweeted out assurances that testing was now going smoothly.

“With the exception of a few pauses in the testing system, our students taking the ISTEP test have experienced no significant disruptions,” the Indianapolis Public School system, the state’s biggest, reported at noon.

At the end of the school day, the Indiana Department of Education released a statement that said that schools had successfully completed more than 300,000 testing sessions with “minimal interruptions.” It also announced, however, that reduced testing would have to be extended another day. “In order to minimize interruptions to students,” said the statement, ”the Department has again asked schools to reduce their daily testing load by approximately 50 percent.”

Indiana schools also experienced service interruptions of online testing by CTB/McGraw-Hill during 2011 and 2012, but not at the level of this week.

In Oklahoma, Department of Education spokesperson Tricia Pemberton said she was unaware of “any disruptions” on Wednesday. “We are up online testing again and we’re hoping to finish those tests,” she said. “We’ve have extended the testing window for our districts and made some other accommodations.”

After 3,000 students were knocked off the computer system “midassessment” on Monday and Tuesday, State Education Superintendent Janet Barresi called the interruptions “completely unacceptable.”

“I am outraged that our school districts are not able to administer assessments in a smooth and efficient manner,” said Barresi.

Assurances it won't happen again

Pemberton said that CTB/McGraw-Hill said it did not have enough “hardware space” for the number of students who went online. “They assured us that if we continue in the fall, they will test it properly to make sure we don’t have this problem again.”

Oklahoma, which is in the first year of two separate contracts with CTB/McGraw Hill, began its online testing last week, but did not experience significant issues until this week, when Indiana’s students began online testing. 

Pemberton said that some students would be allowed to retake the test, and that the state would extend the number of days on which it offered testing.

Linda Hampton, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, which represents the state’s teachers, said as a teacher she knew students were “sick to their stomachs about testing – and that’s without the interruption.”

“We go through a process, sort of like a coach, getting kids ready for a game,” she said, “and then, suddenly, there’s no game. It only increases anxiety.”

But Hampton said she felt the snafus only point up the larger problem with basing so much – funding, the right to graduate, and for one student she recalled, the right to serve in the military – on a few hours of testing.

“We believe in accountability, but it should be meaningful accountability,” she said. “It should be more than a snapshot on a given day.”

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