Saturday, June 2, 2018

Crashing Tests

Yesterday's Dallas News reports that Texas has an even bigger testing screw-up on its hands than previously believed. Education authorities in Texas first believed that a mere 71,000 students were affected by computer crash issues during the high-tech administration of the STAAR test. But as stories have rolled in, it becomes apparent that things were far worse.

Educational Testing Services, a grand old corporate handler of testing, had a miserable time with these tests, with servers throwing students off the test or barring their path. This is the third year ETS has had the contract, despite the less-than-stellar showing in 2016.

Now my autopilot hits a cop car while I eat a donut. Cool!

Texas is not the only state having issues. This year, New York's English test malfunctioned for many students. Tennessee has been trying for years to make the online testing thing work, but they keep failing. Florida had its own share of connectivity issues for years.And let's not forget classics like the Ohio tests that were incorrectly graded. Or the states where the testing computers were under cyberattack. The list of technofails is long.

And I still have fond memories of Pennsylvania's experience in online testing-- the short form is that a few hundred thousand students logged on, and the test immediately ground to a halt. It was almost as if someone on the state level said, "Meh-- that doesn't look like a lot of bandwidth, but let's just wing it." So now we do our testing with pencils.

There is something superstitious about how we treat our tech; we ignore the many many many many many times it lets us down, and we focus on the times when it accomplishes that one thing. But if we're going to attach high stakes to these tests, then they should work every time, not just most of the time, probably.

Tesla has been leading the auto industry in autopilot disasters, leading company spokespersons to unleash this bit of advice:

When using Autopilot, drivers are continuously reminded of their responsibility to keep their hands on the wheel and maintain control of the vehicle at all times,

In other words, when using the autopilot, don't use the autopilot.

The dream has been to have all of America's students log on and take the Big Standardized Test, but it keeps not happening. And every technofail sends to students the message that the BS Test is not ready for prime time, that it can't be trusted, that it's a waste of their effort and attention. After all, if you're not ready to handle your part of the job, why should I treat my part of the process with any care or concern.

It's not clear why the BS Test needs to be given on the computer. The test is not complex, and scoring a multiple choice test is not exactly the toughest clerical task you can give a teacher. I suspect that one of the main reasons for BS Testing on the computer is that taking tests on computers is really cool, and the digital natives (the ones who listen to the rap music) will be excited to do it. I'm pretty sure that none of these is true.

Does it make more money for the test manufacturer? Well, they've gotten rid of printing and distribution costs. If it isn't making them a bunch of money, they're doing something wrong.

Do paper and pencil tests have issues, too? Sure. Pencils break. Paper rips. On the other hand, one live teacher hardly ever loses or miscorrects hundreds and thousands of tests.

But does it also make the test easier and more accurate for the students? No reason to think so. But computerizing does make it easier for education "leaders" and bureaucrats to see the numbers and scores (all of which are largely meaningless, but oh well). If the online test offers no more utility or benefit to the students, why use it? I suspect the answer is that the benefits are not for the students at all, but for the people who have decided they will monitor school progress via spreadsheet. The computer tests aren't for children and they aren't for teachers-- they're for administrators and bean counters, for people who want to see education as the state would see it.

And they've been in such a hurry to see those data that they haven't checked to make sure that every test actually works the way it's supposed to.

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