Score Delays Paralyze Planning

K-12 Testing

While insisting that students and schools meet strict test-based accountability requirements, many states have been unable to meet their own standards for accurate and timely test score reporting. Long delays in the release of test scores this spring wreaked havoc on academic planning in many states, leaving students and their families in a summertime lurch. The incidents are another example of the educational harm that comes from reliance on test scores to make high-stakes decisions such as promotion and retention.


Test score reports for the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) were postponed three times by National Computer Systems (NCS), the company hired to score the test, which blamed the problem on a shortage of graders for the essay portion of the exam. The delays caused an uproar, particularly in 78 schools which the state had graded an “F” last year based solely on their scores. Parents at those schools would have been automatically eligible to receive vouchers to send their children to private schools this year had their schools’ test scores not improved sufficiently to earn them a “D” or higher. When NCS finally released the results, it turned out that all 78 schools had improved enough to move out of the voucher-eligible category.


Florida officials fined NCS $4 million for the delays. NCS official Maggie Knack says that a furor arises over such errors because “testing has become an emotional issue and considered a big deal by local communities.”


NCS also delayed the release of test scores in Michigan both in 1999 and 2000, and it mis-reported over 15% of the results in its final 1999 release. In addition, the company mis-scored a math question on the Arizona statewide test in 1999, affecting over 12,000 students.


Similarly, CTB-McGraw Hill has told 230,000 Mississippi students and school officials they will have to wait five months longer than planned to receive their results.


Last year, a scaling error by the same company caused a summer-long delay in Tennessee’s release of statewide scores, while a change of address for the state’s central testing center was blamed for another long delay this summer. Marion County Superintendent Paul Turney complained, “We can’t even plan for next year without these scores. So we’re sitting around just waiting.”


South Carolina education officials recently learned that scores from this spring’s Palmetto Achievement Challenge Test (PACT) won’t return until October, putting a halt to plans to use the test for student placement decisions next year.


Such paralysis in planning could be avoided if test scores were properly used as only one source of data and placed alongside other relevent information, as recommended by the National Academy of Science’s National Research Academy (see Examiner, Fall 1998) and the national standards for the testing profession (see Examiner, Winter 1999-2000). Classroom performance assessments, collections of student work, and teacher-created tests provide more comprehensive--and more timely--sources of data about student achievement that can be relied upon in making important decisions regardless of whether test scores are available.