The online format allows states to give standardized tests — once a week-long ordeal in the second half of the school year — as often as four times a year. It’s an opportunity that early adopters such as Delaware have already embraced.
“This is so thrilling and exciting for those of us who work with schools,” said Joe Willhoft, executive director of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, one of two groups developing the new tests. “Not only will we have the end-of-the-year test, but we will also have tests that teachers can use throughout the year that can help students.”
Townsend Elementary, which is located in the Appoquinimink School District, gives students additional computer-based tests each year that teachers say are more fine-tuned than the state exams. “It used to be testing week,” said Charles Sheppard, the principal at Townsend. “Now we just test.”
Technical problems erupted as soon as Wyoming switched to online testing in 2010. Students were unable to submit their tests after spending hours taking them. At times the questions wouldn’t load on the screen. And ultimately the scores were deemed unreliable.
“We had so many poor kids who had to take the test again,” said Gordon Knopp, technology director of Laramie County School District No. 1, the largest school district in Wyoming.
Online testing was such a debacle that voters threw the state superintendent of education out of office and the state sued Pearson, the company hired to administer the test. (The state reached a $5 million settlement with Pearson, but the outgoing governor decided not to sign it and obligate his successor to the deal.) The state went back to old-fashioned paper, which it still uses.
Wyoming decided to be a trailblazer because the state already had a solid Internet infrastructure. Some schools were streaming videos and had shifted their phone systems online. Trial runs at practice test sites went smoothly. Jim McBride, the former superintendent, said he was hopeful that online tests would soon deliver timely results that could be used to improve classroom instruction.
Instead, the network infrastructure collapsed under the weight of more than 80,000 public school students. Knopp explained that there were two cyber traffic jams. The first was that every school was routed through a single pipe to the Wyoming Department of Education. The Department of Education and Pearson had decided to control the raw test data through a single, private network.
The second jam was unique to Wyoming. The sparsely populated, rural state had set up its public Internet system to connect to the outside world through servers in Fort Collins, Colo. The Internet pathway from the Department of Education to Colorado was used by the entire state of Wyoming.
“We were at the mercy of everyone else,” said Knopp.
Wyoming teachers also complained that school schedules were upended to rotate everyone through a computer lab, which could no longer be used for actual instruction. Some cash-poor schools had outdated equipment that didn’t work.
Knopp predicts problems for every state and district across the nation. “If it’s not the network, then it’s something else,” he said.
Kansas, for example, doesn’t have the resources to manage its school computers remotely. To prevent students from, say, searching for the answer on Google during a test, all the computers would need to be manually “locked out” one by one and used exclusively for testing.
Knopp says that to overcome online bottlenecks, education bureaucrats will have to operate a decentralized computer network like those of Google, Amazon and Netflix. “They don’t make you go to a single testing center,” said Kopp.
Online companies reroute customers to servers where there is less traffic.