The problems with the high-stakes STAAR tests keep coming.
On Wednesday, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath announced that the number of students affected by computer glitches during standardized testing this year was much higher than previously reported: up to 100,445 students across the state.
Some kids were kicked out of online testing for up to three hours because of server issues while taking the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness tests. Others had to log in multiple times because of problems with the system.
The latest reports are emerging even as local school administrators are becoming increasingly concerned about the whole testing program. Garland ISD reported that its tests were delivered to the wrong district — in Houston. And several districts say they had a suspiciously high number of students score zeros on high school essay portions of the tests.
Several Denton County schools also felt the effect of the computer glitches.
Administrators in the Argyle, Aubrey, Denton, Krum, Pilot Point and Sanger ISDs all said their students were locked out of the system for less than an hour during testing April 10, but were able to log off and log back in without losing any work.
Morath briefed the State Board of Education on this year’s testing hiccups, saying they were a far cry from the widespread mishaps that happened in 2016 when there were also computer glitches, delivery problems and grading issues. Still, this year has been far from flawless.
Thousands of students were kicked off online tests in April and May. Now their scores won’t necessarily be factored into the state’s academic ratings, which are to be released this summer and are a big factor in a system that grades schools on how well kids perform.
Morath reiterated that the scores of those affected by this year’s mishaps will be tossed if they drag down the rating of a school or district. He said the state is working with its vendor — Educational Testing Services — to correct the issues.
“We’re working pretty furiously to prevent this sort of thing in the future,” he said. “We had the high-water mark last year. We want to return to that next year.”
Thomas Ewing, spokesman for Educational Testing Services, said the vendor has implemented numerous improvements across the state since 2016 and he once again said computer slowdowns were due to “human errors” and not the vendor’s online testing system. Educational Testing Services said it did not have permission to go into technical details explaining what happened, but did not explain where it needed to get permission.
“We have been completely cooperative in providing TEA [the Texas Education Agency] the information it needs to act accordingly, and have also changed our processes to avoid having similar errors in future online administrations,” Ewing said in a written statement.
He said Educational Testing Services had issues in 2016 because its systems and processes weren’t designed appropriately for Texas. The company was ordered by the state to spend $15 million in improvements after 2016, which he noted resulted in a nearly flawless testing season in 2017.
Continuing issues “have not persisted and the improvements have had very positive effects. The TEA and Texas school districts have the right to hold us to perfection, and we strive to achieve it,” he said.
But other districts aren’t so sure. Garland officials, for example, said they not only had nearly 500 students kicked out of online tests, but they also encountered significant problems getting tests delivered in the first place.
“We have experienced similar issues with every STAAR/EOC administration with the current vendor,” spokeswoman Mida Milligan said.
This year, an entire pallet of the district’s secure testing materials was delivered to Houston while Garland instead received precoded answer documents for Duncanville ISD.
And Garland is among those taking a second look at how high school English essays were scored. Last week, the Texas Tribune reported that some high-achieving schools around the state noticed an unusual number of kids earning a zero score on their essays.
Garland has since asked that 129 student essays be reviewed.
Fort Worth ISD spokesman Clint Bond said district officials there also noticed an unusual increase in zeros and is in the process of reviewing them to see if there is a pattern or if any should be rescored.
In 2016, Lewisville ISD was among districts across the state that had a significant number of student test scores changed after the students initially earned zeros.
But Ewing said the process for assigning scores to written compositions is well established and carefully monitored by both the vendor and the Texas Education Agency.
“There are a number of ways a student can receive a score of zero. For example, papers that are off-topic or plagiarized receive scores of zero, even if written very well by a high-achieving student,” he said.
He also noted that Garland’s delivery issues were corrected before the materials were due, leaving no negative impact on the district. He said such problems are rare.
“We are confident that the number of districts that have errors in shipment of materials is a small fraction of what it was since ETS put in improvements between 2016 and 2017, guided by frequent meetings with district staff and TEA,” he said. “We continue to try to eliminate all errors.”
Morath fined Educational Testing Services $100,000 in damages for the computer problems experienced this year.
The commissioner had initially determined about 71,000 students were affected by the computer glitches this spring. But last week, he expanded the criteria for establishing whether students were affected.
The number of North Texas students affected ranges across districts from 58 in Frisco to 591 in Carrollton-Farmers Branch and 993 in Arlington.
Morath already waived promotion requirements for fifth- and eighth-graders who were affected by glitches. They generally need to pass the STAAR tests before moving on to the next grade.
High schoolers must pass three of five end-of-course exams before graduating, a requirement Morath doesn’t have the authority to waive. But he told the board that only about a dozen seniors — out of nearly 350,000 tested — were affected by the online testing problems and still needed to pass at least one of those tests.
Meanwhile, the state’s testing contract has been opened up for new bids this month as previously scheduled. Educational Testing Services’ contract — currently worth about $327 million — runs through August 2019.