Makeup Exam

After last year’s assessment testing debacle, state officials regroup and try again

Between kindergarten and high school graduation, the average American student takes more than 100 standardized tests. Here in Nevada, it starts with the Kindergarten Entry Assessment and concludes with the End of Course exams 12th graders must pass in order to get their diploma.

What some parents probably don’t realize is the majority of this testing is not proposed by educators, but by the government: You want federal funds, take this test. You want state money, break out that No. 2 pencil. Every new program comes with “accountability,” and “data,” which means exams. American schools spent $1.7 billion on standardized testing on 2012, and that number has surely increased since.

As for Nevada, the Department of Education recently signed a four-year $51 million contract with Data Recognition Corp. to administer assessments. Parents and students certainly recall the debacle that occurred during testing this past spring, when thousands of Nevada students found themselves struggling to take tests amid server crashes, computer freezes and a cavalcade of glitches. It led to breach-of-contract charges by the DOE and a lot of blame-passing between three related partners: the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), Measured Progress and the American Institutes for Research.

The latter two, who seemed responsible for most of the issues, are now out of the Nevada testing equation. But last year’s disaster wasn’t the reason why. “We were doing this work well in advance of any challenges that we experienced with the Smarter Balanced Assessment,” says Steve Canavero, deputy superintendent for student achievement of the Nevada’s DOE. He adds that the problems encountered did inform the process of choosing a vendor. “We asked a lot of questions about the delivery of the SBAC based on what we knew from last year: How is this different than what we had? How can you ensure that this is going work?”

Actually, those questions were asked of a different company: Educational titan McGraw-Hill/CTB originally bid on and received the contract, but the company sold the bulk of its testing business to Data Recognition Corp (DRC). a few days before receiving the state’s “Notice of Award.” Given that McGraw-Hill is being sued by the State of Georgia for botching its standardized testing, the change in ownership might prove beneficial.

Another important fact to note: Data Recognition will only be part of the testing equation and Smarter Balanced is still being paid about $1.3 million per year (plus additional fees) to create the end-of-year Common Core test for students in grades 3-8  “It’s kind of like we’re buying questions from Smarter Balanced, and DRC is delivering them,” Canavero says. “It’s a partnership that requires the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and the DRC to work together to provide a seamless testing experience.”

In addition to the Smarter Balanced Assessment, Data Recognition will also administer the four End of Course exams for high school students, as well as the College and Career Readiness Assessment (a.k.a. the ACT exam). The state and its school districts share the $2 million per year cost of the actual ACT. “There are a number of assessments that are under this umbrella contract,” Canavero says.

Another issue—and cost—arises from the fact that all of these assessments must be taken via computer. So not only do schools need enough computer terminals for testing, but students need to have enough access to those computers so that they feel comfortable using them. (Perhaps Bill Gates’ big donations to the development of Common Core weren’t entirely altruistic after all.)

“We’re really looking forward to [seeing the results of] middle-level students who have had the device for the past few years, how that data differentiates their performance with the assessment online,” says Jhone Ebert, chief innovation and productivity officer for the Clark County School District. While the computer may complicate the test-taking, it does simplify analyzing the results. “If we have an interim assessment,” Ebert says, “I can compare all 25,000 second graders in the district and I can compare it nationally as well.”

Second grade, huh? Only about 99 more assessment tests to go …