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Too Little, Too Late, Too Much, Too Soon

April 22, 2014

By now, you’ve probably heard about Oklahoma’s Second Annual Testing Debacle, brought to you by CTB/McGraw-Hill, the State Department of Education, and Janet4Kids. At 8:30 yesterday morning, the online testing system for grades 6-12 kicked about 8,000 students offline. The SDE and CTB made the decision – which probably was the only choice available – to shut the system down for the day. Needless to say, Superintendent Barresi was…well, what’s the word…

…frustrated. She was frustrated and angry. For those who found themselves able to watch her press conference live yesterday and/or were able to stomach it in taped form, you saw a visceral reaction to a dumbfounding occurrence. This should not have happened. It definitely should not have happened twice. For that reason alone, we have to hold yesterday’s events, and the reaction to them, to extra scrutiny. That includes this bulletin from the SDE sent around dinner time last night:

Barresi opposes renewal of contract with testing vendor
Some school districts will resume testing Tuesday
OKLAHOMA CITY (April 21, 2014) — In the wake of thousands of disruptions in online assessments today, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi said she will recommend the State Board of Education not renew the contract of testing vendor CTB/McGraw-Hill for the next fiscal year.

Officials with CTB/McGraw-Hill held a conference call late this afternoon with Barresi and representatives of 11 districts, including Davis, Edmond, El Reno, Lawton, Norman, Oklahoma City, Prague, Pryor, Sapulpa, Tulsa and Woodward. CTB indicated  a piece of hardware malfunctioned and caused intermittent disruptions. The situation had been remedied by early afternoon.

Districts are free to continue testing tomorrow or wait until Wednesday based on their specific needs. OSDE suspended testing Monday once the scope of the disruptions became apparent.

About 8,100 Oklahoma students in grades 6-12 experienced disruptions during online testing.

“It is an understatement to say I am frustrated. It is an understatement to say I am outraged,” Barresi said at a news conference held at the department.

“The state was ready. Districts did all we asked of them. We quadrupled training, conducted stress tests and addressed a litany of issues in hopes of guarding against as many system deficiencies as possible. But we could not guard against everything, and this is a 100-percent failing of CTB.”

CTB indicated it is monitoring the errant hardware and is working with the hardware vendor to guard against another interruption. This marks the second year of significant system disruptions surrounding the vendor.

About 11,000 students today were able to complete their assessments.

Third- through fifth-grade students taking assessments were not affected because those tests are pencil-and-paper.

These strong words remind me of how Barresi stood up to CTB last year. It’s one of my all-time favorite quotes from her:

I had zero involvement in the entire process from start to finish.

That’s right. Three weeks after the disruption, she announced that she hadn’t been involved with the selection of the testing vendor at all. I concluded at the time that this represented either an act of malfeasance (doing her job poorly) or nonfeasance (failing to do her job at all). Below is my assessment of this year’s response.

Too Little

One of the things we learned yesterday is that the state can fine the testing company $15,000 per day, up to three percent of the total contract, when testing breaks. Since then, we’ve learned that CTB has given all districts the green light to resume testing. That’s a relief. I’d hate for the textbook/publishing conglomerate to feel any real disruption. I guess they’re just too big to fail hold accountable. CTB is getting $13.5 million in Oklahoma tax dollars this year. Their maximum fine is just north of $400,000. We won’t even approach that.

This should be instructive as we continue hiring and firing companies that fail us on test day. The punishments built into the contracts have to be significant enough to hurt. While contractually, we can’t do much more than this, we do still have one card left to play: field testing item tryouts.

At this point, continuing with the plan to have Oklahoma students take practice tests following the real tests (at least for CTB) is unreasonable. I’ve heard from way too many parents who want nothing to do with this process anyway. Pulling out of the CTB field tests (not Measured Progress – the new testing company that hasn’t disappointed us yet) would allow the SDE to show in way that words cannot how much they want to help us. We’re firing them anyway. Why put our students through this exercise just to give them extra data they can take to another state.

Too Late

Barresi said yesterday that last year, we couldn’t have fired CTB if we had wanted to. She cited the fact that we entered into a five year contract with them and the late date of the testing disruption. Here’s how the SDE announced their contract with CTB in December 2012:

The State Board of Education during a special meeting on Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012, voted unanimously to recommend that CTB/McGraw Hill be awarded a one-year $8.9 million testing contract for grades 3-8. The contract has four additional annual renewals for a total price of $28 million. The contract will still have to be approved by the state Department of Central Services. If awarded, CTB/McGraw Hill would develop tests in all subject areas for grades 3-8 as well as benchmark assessments in reading, mathematics and writing. The company already has the contract for Oklahoma end-of-instruction exams. This was the only item on the board’s agenda.

From the beginning, the SDE knew we could opt out each year. On the other hand, something about opting out gives them cold sweats. The timing wasn’t an issue either. Last year, the disruption happened April 29. This year, it was April 21. Those extra eight days don’t provide much cushion in the Request For Proposals process. CTB should have been fired last year. Instead, we had an initial response of outrage from Barresi, followed by her blaming schools for the disruption, and then eventually a milquetoast settlement. It’s the worst bastardization of Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief I have ever witnessed.

Too Much

Being late to the game of disappointment and frustration is one thing. Piling on by ensuring that the integrity of test results won’t be compromised is a slap in the face. It shows that Barresi just doesn’t get it. She can’t say enough that the pencil-paper tests of third through fifth grade students wasn’t affected. She makes it clear that disrupted students can pick up where they left off. The tests, however, are no longer valid. That doesn’t mean CTB will invalidate them, though.

Still, these tests will be used as high-stakes measures for students, teachers, schools, and districts. They will impact graduation plans, evaluations, spending for Title I schools placed on the needs improvement list, and property values of homeowners. Yesterday’s disruption is another illustration of how ludicrous it is to place so much emphasis on one test. These instruments tell us very little. They’re not even good at what they’re supposed to be, however. Even if all goes smoothly, we won’t have scores back in a timely manner and be able to do anything useful with them.

This is why I support any plan to reduce the amount of standardized testing we have in Oklahoma. I just don’t believe that reinforcing bad tests is the way to keep subjects like social studies from being marginalized. If we could get Congress to end No Child Left Behind, states like ours could have a real conversation about the purpose and utility of assessment. Until then, we continue to jump through hoops. This makes us compliant, not accountable.

Too Soon

In a span of seven hours yesterday – from the time of the press conference until the press release in the evening – Barresi flip-flopped on whether or not we could fire the testing company. I hesitate using that term on politicians because I expect reasonable people to be open-minded and open to change. Still, during the press conference, she was adamant that we could not have fired CTB last year. To change her mind that quickly means that she must have been presented with new evidence. I just wonder if that evidence came from her staff at the SDE or her campaign people.

Maybe the difference is that it happened twice. Maybe it’s that it happened in a campaign year. From throwing the new Assistant State Superintendent of Assessment into the fire on the tough questions (Welcome to Oklahoma!) during the presser, to the overuse of adjectives in speech and writing, her response reeks of desperation. I saw quick responses on social media from two of her opponents – Deskin and Hofmeister. I’m sure the other four had equally prompt reactions. Yes, yesterday’s events have to be a factor in the rest of the campaign (63 days until the primary).

If I’m those six opponents, I think I use this Pat Benetar classic in my campaign ads for a while.

Testing is Barresi’s calling card. It is the point of origin for every issue that matters to her. Testing is caring. A-F Report Cards. Third grade retention. Teacher evaluations. Value-added measurements. It is (0,0) on her axis. Any failure in testing damages the extent to which her few remaining supporters can honestly believe in her or her initiatives.

That doesn’t mean we should be complacent, though. She has a self-financed campaign and millions to pump into it. She is buddies with Jeb Bush. At a moment’s notice, she could have his Foundation running the show, and probably shoring up some of the public relations damage.

If you’re an educator, keep letting the parents you see know how badly Barresi and the SDE are doing when they’re supposed to support education. If you’re a parent, tell other parents. Whoever you are, keep calling and writing your elected legislators. Sign the No On Barresi petition. Add your concerns to this survey of Oklahoma Education Voters. Do everything you can to help fire the person who didn’t fire the testing company last year.

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