Ed Week Recaps ISAT Debacle

The latest edition of EdWeek recaps the problems with Harcourt and the ISAT, including claims by Harcourt that the problems are much smaller than have been reported. 

No mention of Chicago -- but I guess it could have been worse:  some districts are having to test kids after spring break.

Published: March 22, 2006

Illinois Schools Adjust to Delays, Mishaps by Test Company

School
districts across Illinois have scrambled to reschedule test dates and
review test materials in response to a series of delays and problems
with their statewide assessmentsetbacks that state officials blame on
the contractor hired to produce and deliver the exams.

At
least 126 of the states 896 districts have sought to change the time
when they administer the Illinois Standards Achievement Test, or ISAT,
the mandatory annual exam for students in grades 3-8.

Illinois
state Superintendent of Schools Randy J. Dunn blamed the states
testing vendor, Harcourt Assessment Inc., for the problems, which he
said included delays in sending tests and answer documents to
districts, exams with missing or repeated sections, and a toll-free
troubleshooting number that offered school officials little or no help.
Students were scheduled to take the ISAT March 13-24.

At
its regular meeting on March 16, the nine-member Illinois state board
of education addressed three Harcourt officials, expressing their
concerns about the testing miscues.

The board members
focused more on fixing the problems than on assigning blame, said Meta
Minton, the spokeswoman for the state education department.

They
were nonetheless clear, she added, in telling the Harcourt officials:
We are putting you on notice and you have to deliver.

State
officials said that Harcourt Assessment, based in San Antonio, has a
contract worth $44 million that lasts through the 2008-09 school year.
That contract was approved in September 2004, just weeks before Gov.
Rod R. Blagojevich appointed Mr. Dunn to the schools chiefs job and
overhauled the membership of the state board.

On March 13,
in a weekly newsletter, Mr. Dunn outlined a series of steps aimed at
ensuring that the ISAT is scored accurately. He said he would also seek
assurances that no mishaps occur during administration of the Prairie
State Achievement Exam, the state assessment for 11th graders, which is
scheduled for April and is also produced by Harcourt.

Nothing short of this will be acceptable, Mr. Dunn wrote.

Mr.
Dunn has said previously that if Harcourts contract were canceled, he
would expect Harcourt to complete the ongoing 2006 testing cycle.

In
a statement issued before the Illinois boards meeting, Harcourt
officials acknowledged delays in distributing the ISAT materials, but
said the remainder of the exam materials would be received by districts
by March 13.

They also said they knew of only six Illinois
school districts that had reported a total of 85 defective test
booklets out of roughly 1.2 million shipped. Harcourt has conducted
manual examinations of testing materials for grades in which errors
were reported, and found a minuscule rate of defects, according to
company officials. Our entire focus at this time is on completing the
administration of the current ISAT smoothly and without further delay,
Rick Blake, Harcourt Assessments vice-president for government
relations and communications, said in a statement.

Mr. Blake added in a March 15 e-mail to Education Week
that all ordered test materials had arrived at schools on March 13,
despite some delays because of tornadoes in central Illinois. The
company was continuing to process orders as it received them, he added.

Harcourt has not experienced delays in sending products to schools in other states, he wrote.

A Lot of Concern

The
ISAT assesses students in reading, mathematics, and science. The
results are used to calculate school and district performance under the
federal No Child Left Behind Act. This spring, Illinois students are
being tested in reading and math in grades 3-8, and in science in 4th
and 8th grades.

Most districts seek to administer the ISAT
before the week they let students out for spring break, said Michael D.
Johnson, the executive director of the Illinois Association of School
Boards. The testing delays have upset those plans, forcing many systems
to delay the tests until after students return, he said.

You
come back from spring breakthats not the ideal learning environment
for students, Mr. Johnson said. Its caused a lot of concern in
school districts.

In his letter to district officials,
Mr. Dunn, the state chief, said his office was finishing work on a plan
to ensure the validity of the ISAT results. He said several steps were
being considered, including contracting with a company other than
Harcourt to check the accuracy of the scoring. He also asked districts
that incur extra expenses as a result of testing problems to submit
claims to the state board of education, which in turn will seek payment
from Harcourt.

PHOTO:
Dave Schwartz, the principal of Horace Mann School in Alton, Ill.,
applies labels to each Illinois Standards Achievement Test to be given
on March 13. Some schools postponed the exam because of delays in
receiving test materials or other problems.
David Carson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Filed under: The World Outside CPS

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