States: Foul Ups and Cut-Backs

K-12 Testing

North Carolina’s plans to have a new writing test in place for next year were thrown off track when the exam’s field-test was not taken seriously enough by students and schools. Many students did not respond and several schools reportedly failed to even give the trial tests. The state board of education threatened penalties for schools that do not participate in future field tests and is launching a plan to rebuild public confidence in the writing exams.


In Virginia, a scoring error on the state mandated Standards of Learning (SOL) exam led to more than 5,000 students being wrongly told they had failed the test. SOL manufacturer Harcourt Educational Measurement incorrectly set the cut score too high in its grading software. The programming error incorrectly forced 5,625 scores below the failing point and lowered scores for 7,702 other students. Districts often require students who fail the test to attend summer school. With the SOL slated to become a graduation requirement next year, the impact of testing errors could be even more profound. Mickey Vanderwerker, of Parents Across Virginia United to Reform SOLs, said, “It happened this year and we found it and fixed it…what about next year…if we discover in August 2004 that, `Whoops we were wrong,’ those kids would have missed their graduation.”


In Florida NCS Pearson won the bid to administer the FCAT exam in 2005, even though the state had informed NCS that its contract would not be renewed. NCS had been late in returning Florida’s test scores and faced challenges over scoring errors in other states such as Minnesota (see story, page 7). Nonetheless, Florida signed a new contract with NCS due to its low bid and the difficulty in finding any other company without a similar record of problems.


Colorado district officials discovered incorrect data had been reported indicating the percentage of students to score “proficient” on a fourth grade writing test had declined when it had actually increased. The correction saved some schools from being rated “unsatisfactory” and facing sanctions.


Cutting Back on Tests
In Michigan, the Essential Skills Attainment Test (ESAT) is being abandoned because it was “ineffective and cumbersome” according to the state’s School Board. “So now we won’t have a student with a 3.0 in summer school because they didn’t pass a test,” explained board member Marvis Cofield.


An Idaho education panel is considering a plan to award diplomas to those who do not pass the Idaho Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) but demonstrate skills in other ways. A plan to institute alternative assessments for those who don’t do well on the test is also under consideration. This marks a significant departure from the ISATs original role as a high- stakes exam. The change results from concerns shared by educators, parents and the State Board of Education that relying on one test to determine graduation is unfair to students.