Foss: Scrap computer-based testing


Categories: News, Opinion

Ah, standardized testing. 

I remember it well — the computer glitches that disrupted my concentration and interrupted my exams, the lengthy delays caused by struggles to get the technology up and running. 

Then there was the time it got so bad state officials abruptly suspended testing for a day. How could I forget that? 

Wait, hold on. 

I don’t actually have any memories of computer snafus wreaking havoc with my standardized testing regimen. I never experienced any of the problems currently bedeviling the state’s computer-based testing system, now in its second year.

I took all my standardized tests using a simple yet trusty tool called a pencil. The tests, of course, were printed on paper. As systems go, it was old-fashioned, even rudimentary. 

But it never failed. 

It never threw school districts into turmoil, or raised questions about the competency of the state Education Department and the private company, called Questar Inc., tapped to develop and administer what appears to be a flawed and unreliable computer-based testing system.

As for Questar: The company is being paid $44 million to bungle the state’s annual tests for students in grades 3-8. 

That’s embarrassing — and indefensible, given that this is the second year in a row Questar has failed to deliver a quality product to New York’s students. 

I don’t know what the company’s been up to for the past 12 months, but it hasn’t fixed the problems that made testing such a monumental disaster last year. 

Whether it’s because officials don’t care or simply aren’t up to the task, I have no idea. 

And I’m not sure it matters. 

Neither possibility reflects well on Questar, or the state’s decision to entrust the company with such a massive undertaking. 

According to the Department of Education, the glitches experienced by students on Tuesday occurred when Questar’s computer-based system ran out of memory. 

I am by no means an expert on computers, but making sure a system that’s going to be used by thousands of schoolchildren has enough memory to function properly seems like a pretty basic thing. 

The state Education Department maintains that computer-based testing will improve “test delivery, test integrity, scoring validity and turn-around time on testing results,” but I have yet to see anything that makes me believe this golden-age of testing efficiency is right around the corner, or that computer-based testing will ever live up to its promise. 

If anything, using computers to take tests has created headaches where none existed before. 

It’s also costing a lot of money, and absorbing time and energy that would be better devoted to other things. 

Is improving the turn-around time on testing results really so important? 

I would argue that, no, it isn’t — that it’s administrative busywork of limited educational value, and that it’s consuming far too much of our attention and resources. 

On Wednesday, the state Education Department announced that testing will resume, and that paper-based tests will be available for schools that prefer that options. 

I know which option I’d choose, if I ran a school. 

I’d choose paper and pencil — a system that isn’t sophisticated or flashy, but never, ever breaks down. 

Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. 

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