Tests can already induce anxiety in students, especially one they need to pass in order to graduate. That’s when testing administration errors are the least welcome, but last week during the administration of the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, answers on 14,220 of the tests across the state were lost due to a computer glitch.
The affected students—who’d been inactive for 30 minutes, who’d momentarily lost internet connection, or who’d logged out to take a break—tried to submit online tests, they would instead receive an error message, only to log back in to find that their answers were missing. Additionally, some visually impaired students, who had also been prepared to take their braille STAAR tests last week, never got a chance to take the tests because their tests never arrived.
The Texas Education Agency is investigating both of these mishaps. For districts where students lost the answers, TEA announced that individual districts could determine for themselves whether students needed to retake the exam. The agency also ensured “that there are no adverse consequences for students who do not resume testing and for districts that elect not to have students resume testing.” TEA emailed an apology to families of visually impaired students who never received their tests:
We have talked to our Student Assessment staff here at TEA, and you are absolutely correct, there was an issue with our Braille tests. Our testing vendor had several issues with the shipments of these materials. This is not okay with us, and we are working with the vendor to make sure this doesn’t happen again. We are also working very hard with each school district to correct the issue as quickly as we can, so that you and every student who needed a Braille test today can take the test you need to take as quickly as possible.
Unfortunately, errors and mishaps with testing vendors is nothing new. In fact, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, or FairTest, has been keeping a running list of errors with computerized tests around the country. What’s notable about this year’s round of issues with tests in Texas is that they’re happening during the first year that Texas’s newest testing vendor, Educational Testing Service (ETS), has taken over STAAR administration. ETS won the majority of the bid of Texas test administration from Pearson, the state’s previous, long-term test administrator. TEA released a Request for Proposal for Student Assessment in September 2014, and of the five vendors that responded, TEA selected two vendors, ETS and Pearson, to take over the components of the request. ETS received the first three components: Program Integration, STAAR for Grades 3-8 Assessments, and STAAR End-of Course Assessments with a $280 million contract over a four-year period. Pearson received the remaining three components: STAAR Alternate, Texas English Language Proficiency Assessment System (TELPAS), and Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) for a $60 million contract over four years.
Before TEA opened its assessment contract to include ETS, Pearson—which was Texas’s sole testing vendor for decades—had it’s own stumbles. In 2012, thousands of Texas students weren’t able to log in to electronic version of the STAAR writing test. What made the situation even more frustrating was that many of the students were re-taking the writing test, which they’d failed the previous spring. That led a state auditor to determine in 2013 that TEA wasn’t adequately monitoring its $462 million contract with Pearson. TEA’s contract with Pearson didn’t adequately include an itemized list of deliverables, so when changes were made to adjust to new testing requirements, it was essentially up to Pearson to determine the cost of contract changes. The audit also found that Pearson wasn’t meeting state requirement to disclose when former TEA employees later went on to work for Pearson.
TEA dumping Pearson from the majority of their contracts was a welcome change for many who felt that Pearson had held a monopoly on testing in Texas for too long. “We’re generally supportive of a new vendor shaking things up,” Monty Exter, a lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators, told the Houston Chronicle after the announcement.
“I don’t think any Texas parents are shedding tears for Pearson tonight,” Scott Placek, a Round Rock resident and member of the Texas Parents Educational Rights Network, told the Austin American-Statesman. “Pearson earned its reputation it has through its administration of this assessment over the years.”
There were others who didn’t believe a change of vendor was enough of a change. Part of the frustration around testing in Texas is aimed high-stakes tests that some students need to graduate, in addition to how more online tests (one of the selling points of ETS) might hinder some students.
“Unless TEA changes when the tests are administered or what the tests covered, or how the accountability system looks at those results, there’s just going to be a different flavor of frustration,” Thomas Ratliff, a lobbyist and member of the Texas State Board of Education, told the Houston Chronicle.
Last week’s testing failures don’t bode well for ETS, especially when one of their selling points was that would expand online testing beyond high school students. According to Mike Morath, TEA commissioner, the agency doesn’t plan to cut the vendor any slack.
“Such issues undermine the hard work of our teachers and students. Kids in the classroom should never suffer from mistakes made by adults. Educational Testing Service is not new to administering assessments on a large-scale basis, so I cannot accept the transition to a new testing vendor as an excuse for what occurred,” Morath said in a statement. He added that if ETS’s glitches aren’t fixed by May, ETS would be penalized and Texas might reconsider their contract.
Editor’s note: A previous version of the story misstated the amount of the Pearson contract. We regret the error.