Kentucky schools forced to rearrange testing plans after ACT online snafu

Lexington Herald-Leader

Kentucky high school students who haven't completed required end-of-course testing online will be taking their tests the old-fashioned way.

After sporadic problems last week with the online test, which is provided by ACT Inc., the Kentucky Department of Education sent an email Saturday morning to testing coordinators throughout the state announcing that it is moving to pencil-and-paper tests for all students who have not yet taken the tests online this year.

The email said that ACT had told the education department late Friday afternoon that it was suspending the online system on Monday "due to technical issues."

"ACT is attempting to re-open the online system as soon as possible; however, (the education department) believes stabilization of the end of course assessment program is now the priority," according to the email from Rhonda Sims, director of the education department's Division of Support and Research.

Schools that had planned to use online testing will instead receive shipments of paper test books in their district offices by May 13, the email said.

The end-of-course tests are mandatory for high school students taking English II, algebra II, biology and U.S. history.

Two years ago, the state adopted a new set of "common core standards" for what students should be learning. Results of the end-of-course tests count toward schools' scores in the state accountability system, and individual scores are used in calculating students' final course grades.

Last week, the state education department received reports of slow connections and dropped connections among students taking the online test in about 25 districts. On Wednesday, the department suspended testing.

Students in Alabama and Ohio were also experiencing problems.

ACT said that its Vantage testing system had been overloaded by the number of students taking the test but that more capacity had been added, and that testing could resume Monday without no further problems expected.

However, according to the email from Sims, ACT notified the state late Friday that the system would not, in fact, be available Monday.

Because of concerns about the ability to get all students tested before the end of the school year, the state has opted to scratch online testing altogether.

Nancy Rodriguez, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education, said ACT is prioritizing shipments of test books so that districts with fewer days left in the school year should get them sooner.

The education department acknowledged it its email that the online system failures had caused "continued frustration" for schools.

Lessons, activities and events have been planned for the final weeks of school, and working around those things with a new testing schedule is "going to be a challenge," said Michele Reynolds, assessment coordinator for Fayette County schools.

Tates Creek High School had been scheduled to begin online testing Monday. Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, as well as the Learning Center and Locust Trace programs, also planned to administer the online test but will now use the paper version, Reynolds said.

She said teachers at Tates Creek were expecting groups of students to be pulled out of their classes beginning Monday; now that will change as testing is postponed.

Reynolds said 400 to 500 Tates Creek students will be tested in each of the four subject areas, and the number is about the same at Dunbar.

Reynolds said she'll be meeting with representatives of the affected schools Monday to develop a new plan for testing.

Henry Clay, Lafayette and Bryan Station high schools have already completed their testing using the pencil-and-paper version, she said.

Normally, the test results are used in determining a student's final grade.

However, the email Sims sent Saturday says the education department is waiving such requirements because results from pencil-and-paper test results might not be available in time for inclusion in the final grade.

While many districts will get their results in time for use in students' final grades, others might choose to use a local test administered by teachers or adjust the grading scale.

"Districts have total flexibility" in determining how to calculate final grades, the email stated.

About 60 percent of the state's 174 school districts planned to use the online testing system this year; it was not clear how many students had already completed the online test.

In 2012, about 35 percent of Kentucky schools used the online test, and there were no problems, according to a news release issued last week by the education department.

Rodriguez said the state has a $9.3 million contract with ACT that runs from July 1, 2012 to June 30, 2014; however, she said the actual amount paid to ACT will be about $2 million less than that because of changes to the test that require ACT to do less scoring. Those changes are unrelated to the testing system difficulties, she said.