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Computer problems cause school testing angst - again

Computer problems cause school testing angst - again

Several schools postpone testing due to the delays
Computer problems cause school testing angst - again
Photographer: Shutterstock

CAPITAL REGION -- Students and teachers were met with delays Tuesday as they tried to log in to computer-based state English language arts tests or submit their results – problems that echo a chaotic roll out of computer testing last year.

The delays and submission problems affected schools across the state, and by the end of the day state Education Department officials announced computer-based testing would be suspended Wednesday as they tried to work out the kinks.

Officials in Schenectady, Mohonasen, Niskayuna, Scotia-Glenville and other Capital Region school districts confirmed computer problems had caused either delays in students starting tests or difficulty with submitting their results.

In some places, students sat for an hour or more while trying to get the tests up and running. In other places, students couldn't submit their results or were locked out if they took a break.

Mohonasen Superintendent Shannon Shine on Tuesday said the principal at Pinewood Elementary decided to postpone testing after elementary kids waited for around an hour for the testing system to work properly.

“We aren't going to keep kids sitting around,” Shine said of the testing delays. “It definitely had a rough start again this year.”

Tuesday's issues echoed major testing problems last year as the state expanded to more widespread computer-based testing. The testing problems were traced to the state's outside testing contractor, Questar Assessment, which was forced to submit to state officials a detailed analysis of the problems and solutions to prevent their recurrence. Questar was again cited as the source of Tuesday's problems.

In a statement released around 2:30 p.m., state Education Department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis announced computer-based testing would be suspended Wednesday as officials worked out the computer issues with Questar.

“[The state Education Department] expects seamless administration of its [computer-based testing] program, and we will use this time to work with Questar to ensure the system will operate smoothly when testing resumes,” DeSantis said in a news release.

The problems stirred widespread angst within the state's education community as groups representing teachers and superintendents called on state officials to ensure smoother testing. Some educators questioned how the test results can be considered valid if some students were forced to stress over computer basics, while others faced no problems.

New York State United Teachers, the state's major teachers union, which has raised a variety of issues with the annual state tests, on Tuesday called for state officials to halt computer testing until they could ensure smooth test administration. The union had called on state officials to stop computer testing after last year's problems, asking for more time to study computer testing and ensure problems wouldn't arise again.

“This is year two, same problems,” Jolene DiBrango, NYSUT executive vice president, said in an interview Tuesday. “We raised this concern last year and told [the state Education Department] they need to halt the computer-based rollout until they could assure the public they had these problems under control. And it's clear they don't, and they put students right in the middle of it again.”

The State Council of School Superintendents, which has supported a transition to computer-based testing, on Tuesday questioned Questar's ability to manage the state's testing system.

“The problems school have encountered this year and last lead us to doubt that the state's current testing vendor, Questar Asessment, can ever produce acceptable results,” the superintendents' organization said in a Tuesday statement.

For its part, Questar Assessment, a Minnesota-based testing company, said it was “aware of intermittent delays” with computer testing in New York but cited around 60,000 tests across the state that had been completed Tuesday.

“Questar is proactively working with the [state Education Department] and individual school districts to keep them informed,” Questar Chief Operating Officer Brad Baumgartner said in a statement Tuesday afternoon.

Tuesday's testing headaches come as around 10 Capital Region school districts started computer-based testing for at least some of their students this year, joining about a dozen districts that had started computer-based testing last year. State officials have set a “goal” of transitioning all student testing to computer by next year.

Some district officials have supported the state's transition to computer testing, pointing out the hassle involved in wrangling and grading paper tests and arguing that children are just as comfortable working on computers as they are on paper.

Lauren Gemmill, Niskayuna assistant superintendent for instruction, said students she informally surveyed this week told her they preferred computer testing to paper testing. In Niskayuna, fifth-graders started computer testing Monday, when testing went off smoothly, and were able to finish Tuesday. But the district's sixth-graders were delayed Tuesday, so officials postponed further testing. District students in other grades are taking paper tests this year.

Gemmill and other district officials on Tuesday said they were hopeful state officials would work through the technical difficulties and get to a place were computer testing would run smoothly and consistently.

“I think that computer-based testing makes testing so much easier and less problematic, so I'm looking forward to the technology where this becomes seamless,” Schoharie Superintendent Dave Blanchard said Tuesday. “I think this is growing pains.”

But other educators on Tuesday raised concerns about the stress and anxiety the technical problems cause for students and teachers and whether tests taken under the shadow of those problems were a fair measure of a student's knowledge.

“The thing is whether the teachers are coping or not, the state is rushing to go forward with computer-based testing and every district has concerns about whether they have the infrastructure to support this,” Schenectady teachers union president Juliet Benaquisto said.

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