Errors Grow with Mounting Test Pressures

K-12 Testing

The explosion of standardize exams required by No Child Left Behind has strained the capacity of the testing industry to its limits and beyond. Recently reported errors affected students in Illinois, Ohio, Hawaii, Arizona, New York, Georgia and Connecticut. As with the recent SAT scoring fiasco, errors are rarely caught by the testing companies themselves, leaving it to teachers, administrators and students to add "testing watchdog" to their job descriptions. Recent cheating allegations surface in New Jersey, Ohio and New York.


Harcourt Assessment Inc. has been fined $1.6 million by Illinois school officials after a series of problems caused many schools to delay administering state tests until after spring break. Harcourt has a $44.5 million contract slated to run through 2008-09, but the State Board has voted to renegotiate it. Superintendent Randy Dunn had threatened to terminate the contract. State legislators have expressed outrage at the chaos caused by testing snafus. Addressing Dunn and his top staff at a legislative hearing, Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia said, "I would fire everyone that sits in front of me at this point." Harcourt won the contract after hiring a top aide to Governor Rod Blagojevich.


Earlier in Illinois, Charles McNulty, a Freeport middle school principal, questioned the reading test results for his fifth graders and uncovered a scoring error affecting 4,000 students, all of whom received failing scores on last spring's exams.


Hawaii replaced Harcourt with American Institutes of Research in January after "significant errors" in testing materials in 2004 and distribution glitches in 2005.


Durham, N.C.-based Measurement Inc. was fined after scoring errors on Ohio's new graduation test affected students in 272 school districts, with hundreds of students wrongly graded as failing. Errors were noticed by a state data analyst, and the scores for tests given in spring 2005 have been corrected. Company President Henry Scherich wrote a letter apologizing to students.


In Arizona, it was CTB/McGraw-Hill whose technical errors caused school administrators across the state to toss out computer disks with high school exit exam test results and resort to paper-and-pencil analysis, causing a delay in the delivering scores to students.


Another CTB/McGraw-Hill mistake affected 400,000 New York seventh and eighth grade students, who inadvertently got an advance look at questions on the state math exam because questions presented as samples in the fall re-appeared on the real exams in March.


In January, New York City officials spotted a problem with the English exams administered 65,000 grade seven students. On five questions, letters labeling answers in the test booklet did not correspond to those on the answer sheet. For example, the test booklets listed F, G, H or J as possible responses, while the answer sheets gave A, B, C and D as the options.


In Georgia, high school students taking end-of-course tests online encountered technical problems. The tests count as 15 percent of students' final grades, but state officials gave three districts permission to exclude test scores from their calculations because of the snafu.


Connecticut reported that its contractor, Harcourt, fouled up the scanning of students answers. The problem, said Harcourt, would delay score reporting by two to four weeks. This could cause Connecticut to miss the NCLB deadline for reporting scores by September 1. State Education Secretary Betty Sternberg said this could result in the state losing up to $1million in federal funds. It would, she said, constitute a breach of contract. In February, Harcourt mis-reported scores for some 350 students, leading to an $80,000 fine by the state, the maximum allowed under the contract. Connecticut had recently hired Harcourt because of a series of errors by the previous contractor.


With the growing number of visible errors in scoring K-12 tests as well as the SAT, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings summoned executives from top testing companies to ask if they can handle their increased load. Unsurprisingly, they said yes, despite the evidence to the contrary.


Most errors are not caught by the testing industry, which is exempt from any external regulation. The number of errors could be the tip of an iceberg, with many more errors never found. Some could have very harmful consequences for students.


- For a study on testing errors, see the report, Errors in Standardized Tests.