Concern is growing among educators and school officials nationwide that digital testing online for the Common Core program has the potential of experiencing many of the same problems experienced by the healthcare.gov website.
Apparently, no one thought very much about the logistics of trying to test 29 million students when there are limited numbers of computers in many school districts and not enough bandwidth for all students in other districts to be tested at the same time.
Technological hiccups, much less large-scale meltdowns, won’t do: The results of the Common Core tests will influence teachers’ and principals’ evaluations and other decisions about their jobs. Schools will be rated on the results. Students’ promotion to the next grade or graduation from high school may hinge on their scores. And the already-controversial Common Core standards, designed to be tested using a new generation of sophisticated exams that go beyond multiple-choice testing, may be further dragged through the mud if there are crises.
States and the test developers have thought through some of the possible pitfalls. For example, some schools are stocking up on technology, and the tests have been designed to go easy on schools’ Internet infrastructure.
But problems with the exams seem imminent if issues during other large-scale online assessments are any indication: Schools’ bandwidth could collapse under the stress of too many students testing at the same time. Computers could hang up or crash. And schools in some places will have to come up with creative schedules to test all of their students, who may far outnumber available computers. Some schools are already planning to take paper exams until their districts can get up to technological speed — even though those tests will cost more per student than online counterparts and might throw off comparisons with computer-based tests.
“There will be bumps in the first couple years,” said Jeff Livingston, senior vice president of education policy and strategic alliances at McGraw-Hill. “There’s no question in my mind about that … It’s an engineering problem and a policy problem.”
The tests will be given on a massive scale: Roughly 4.2 million third through eighth graders will test the exams in math and English this spring, and 29 million students nationwide will use them starting next school year.
Last spring, Kentucky students taking digital end-of-course assessments designed by ACT had to switch to paper and pencil after slow and dropped connections complicated the testing. Alabama and Ohio students also had problems.
The Kentucky Department of Education wanted ACT to conduct a “stress test” in mid-November to see if the server could handle 20,000 students at one time. ACT was supposed to make software corrections and hardware fixes to improve the online system, but the testing company told the state those fixes wouldn’t be ready for the stress tests or next round of end-of-course exams. The stress test was ultimately canceled.
Sounds eerily familiar — right down to the massive understatements from supporters who think there will only be a few “bumps in the road.” Did anyone even bother to game this thing out on a district-wide or nation-wide basis? As with the Obamacare website, it seems that with no one person in charge, stuff just slips through the cracks.
One survey conducted by the Consortium for School Networking and Market Data Retrieval found “99 percent of districts need additional Internet bandwidth and connectivity in the next 36 months.” Cash strapped schools are in a poor position to do this, which makes the whole notion of Common Core testing a dicey proposition. Several states have already opted out of the pilot testing program with more to follow. The reasons cited are interesting:
Other states are teetering on the edge of their relationships with the federally funded groups devising the tests, decrying cost, federal overreach and the potential tech troubles. A shaky roll out could burn more bridges with those organizations and drive up the cost of testing for remaining states.
Above and beyond the troubles usually cited with the Common Core curricula, the testing regime appears to be too complex, too expensive, and not very well thought out or administered. The ambitious — some might say foolhardy — manner in which these tests have been designed and given serves as distractions from what schools have been created to do; educate the young.
Losing sight of that important task could be Common Core’s biggest drawback.