Taking standardized tests is stressful enough for kids.
The state shouldn’t be making the experience worse by employing a testing system that adds to that stress.
But that’s exactly what happened last week as the state expanded an experiment with computer-based standardized tests.
Nearly 300 school districts this year, including 15 in the Capital District, agreed to offer English exams for students in grades 3-8 via computer.
The result was that numerous schools reported that some of their students had difficulty logging on to the exams, resulting in long delays in getting started and completing the exams. Other students got a message “system failure” on each of the answers to multiple-choice questions.
Others lost notes they had typed into the system.
The entire situation frustrated students and teachers and disrupted the entire exam.
We’ll never know how the problems affected student performance on the exams, but it’s easy to believe the added stress upset some students enough and affected their grades.
Even though state officials and the company that provides the testing were able to reduce, but not eliminate, the problems by Thursday, the entire snafu calls into question the wisdom of administering tests this way and requires state officials to conduct a thorough investigation before subjecting students to further bad experiences.
It certainly seems like a logical progression to administer tests via computer.
When they work, computers can be an effective way to deliver exams. They can be easier and quicker to grade, resulting in a faster turnaround for results, which could enable teachers to address problems with students more quickly. Any problems with questions and answers on the exam can be addressed systemwide on the spot compared to paper exams. And the current crop of students is practically born with computers in their hands, so using the electronic exams might be more natural to them and therefore help reduce their stress.
But computers, even as advanced as they have become, are far from completely reliable.
Besides unanticipated issues with the computer system and the software, a simple lightning strike could knock out power and halt a test right in the middle.
State education officials have ordered the test vendor, Questar Assessment Inc., to do a root-cause analysis and develop a corrective action plan to ensure a similar issue does not occur again. (Questar said it had something to do with the “hosting vendor.”) But who’s to say that the same computer issues that caused last week’s problems won’t crop up again or that there won’t be a different technological issue that upsets the testing process the next time?
For the $44 million the state is paying Questar for its five-year contract, taxpayers have a right to expect the exams will go off without a hitch.
But is that even possible?
As we’ve seen with the hacking of our election system and with the general ability of criminals to tap into everything from credit bureaus to military installations to our own private computers, existing computer systems are far from perfectly reliable and secure.
While the move toward efficiency and modernization in testing is rational, this might not be the best way to administer tests if these types of problems keep cropping up.
Sometimes, the old ways are best.
In the case of elections, many states that had gone over to electronic voting have either decided to switch back to paper ballots or are now requiring that paper records be used as a backup to electronic systems in the wake of hacking threats and computer glitches. Two states actually require their citizens to vote by paper ballots, which are considered by many to be more secure than ballots recorded, transferred and stored electronically.
The New York State United Teachers Union had warned about the rush toward computer-based testing, and its warnings proved prescient last week.
There’s an old saying that goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Many generations of Americans grew successfully into adulthood taking paper exams. The problems parents, educators, teachers unions and others had with standardized testing had little to do with the fact that kids took them on paper.
While state officials will be reviewing the problems that resulted in last week’s disruption of the exams, they should also consider whether it might be safer, less disruptive and less stressful to students and educators to delay the rush toward computerized testing and go back to paper-based exams until a fool-proof computer system can be devised and tested.
The focus of any review should be on the kids and the impact on their ability to take the exams with as little stress as possible.
There’s no shame in rethinking this method of testing. But there will be shame if state officials don’t seriously revisit their entire approach and these kind of problems happen again.