It’s spring—the season of warm days, blooming flowers, budding trees…and state tests.
In many states, however, this testing season has felt more like a cold and damp winter. Delays, cancellations, and other well-documented testing mishaps have soured the mood of parents and educators, and provided much fodder for critics of state tests.
Alaska cancelled its tests outright after its testing platform collapsed. Kansas, which used the same assessment provider as Alaska, had multiple testing delays after experiencing similar technical issues. Problems in Texas, Nevada, and New York have also been reported. The Indiana legislature recently scrapped its controversial ISTEP tests after several snafus. Last year, testing problems plagued officials in Minnesota, Georgia, Florida, and other states.
Perhaps the most well-known testing flop in 2016 occurred in Tennessee. The state’s not-so-aptly named TNReady test turned out not to be ready at all after a series of technical failures caused the state to order schools to abruptly stop the computer-based version and switch to the paper-based version, resulting in widespread cancellations and delays, not to mention a complete loss of faith in TNReady’s results. Parents, teachers, and district officials are urging the Education Commissioner and the Governor to cancel part two of the TNReady exams and start fresh next year, or at least exclude this year’s tests from being used for teacher, district, and school accountability.
In most instances when testing problems occur, state department of education officials simply instruct all schools and districts to stop testing and shift to a normal instructional day. After the TNReady testing platform imploded in Tennessee, the Commissioner of Education emailed district directors with the following instruction:
“At this time, we are advising that schools experiencing problems with the test discontinue testing, and return to their normal classes. Please do not begin any new additional testing you had planned for today until the department provides further information.”
“Return to their normal classes.” That makes sense. After all, the normal daily routine for traditional schools is basically the same: students get on buses, go to their assigned schools, and report to their classrooms, whether for instruction or state testing.
Not so for online public schools. There is absolutely nothing normal or routine when online schools students take state tests. In fact, I bet most people have no idea what online schools must do to fulfil the state-mandated testing requirements.
Online school students learn outside traditional schools, usually at home, and receive their lessons and instruction via the Web. However, states require that students take standardized tests together, in-person, proctored by licensed teachers, during established dates set by the state. This means online schools must secure facilities all across the state (hotels, libraries, learning centers, office buildings, etc.) that meet that state’s testing conditions, technical requirements, and make special accommodations for students with IEPs and disabilities.
To give you a sense of the scale of this operation, one online public charter school, scheduled to begin testing later this month, had to secure 49 separate facilities across the state to test over 9,000 students. The logistical management, costs, and associated labor for this operation are massive—unlike anything any traditional schools or districts face. Months of preparation are required to secure and ready the facilities needed, organize staffing, and to train teachers and proctors. Thousands of boxes of materials must be sorted and shipped to testing locations all over the state and securely stored. This is no small feat.
State testing is not just a one-day exercise. Testing can last several weeks during which schools administer different tests covering different subjects for all required grades. Each student is expected to attend testing every day during their assigned windows, which can last three to five days or more.
Consider the experience for families. They drive – sometimes hours – to and from the testing sites each day. For some families the distances are so great they have to overnight at hotels or stay with friends or relatives who live closer to the testing site. Many have to arrange for child care. They organize carpooling. Working parents take time off of work. (Imagine using precious vacation days so your child can participate in state testing!)
Since state tests need to be administered at different times for different grades, the complexity is greater and the burden higher for parents with multiple children in online schools. And because state standardized tests have become so consequential, the priority becomes testing. When one child in the family is traveling to participate in state tests it unavoidably disrupts learning opportunities for the others.
While most parents with kids in traditional schools probably don’t even know when testing starts, families in online schools literally have to plan their lives around it.
I am amazed every time I hear stories about what online school families and teachers go through to participate in state testing. It’s even more amazing when you consider that many statewide online public schools – including most of K12’s online partner schools – consistently meet the federally required 95 percent test participation rate.
So, to put it mildly, it’s kind of a problem for online schools when testing glitches, delays and cancellations occur. Schedules that were set weeks and months in advance are abruptly altered, contracts with testing sites get cancelled, and new accommodations must be found. Family schedules are completely upended. Precious instructional time is lost. What is a typically a huge task for online schools becomes a logistical nightmare.
For online schools, returning to “normal classes” is just not an option.