Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

May 8, 2013

Return of pencils

The Independent

ASHLAND — It is a question asked by all of us whose lives and jobs are dependent on computers with email and Internet access, fax machines, cellphones and other other electronic essentials of this modern age: What do you do when the electronic devices fail?

Well, if you are high school students in about 25 Kentucky school districts, you abandon technology and temporarily return to the days of pencils and paper.

Because of technical problems with the ACT Vantage testing systems, a number of high school students in Kentucky, Alabama and Ohio  reported slow connections and sometimes dropped connections while taking online end-of-course tests for Advanced Placement courses in  English II, algebra II, biology and U.S. history.

Schools in Indiana, Minnesota and Oklahoma  also reported glitches in online tests in other subjects.

The results of the end-of-course tests in Kentucky are important because they determine whether individual students will receive college credit for the AP classes they took in high school. 

Successfully completing high school courses that also offer college credit can significantly reduce the cost of a college education and the amount of time needed to earn a degree.  Some of the best high school students enter college classified as sophomores because of the amount of college credit hours they have earned.

 But earning college credit for passing an AP class in high school is not automatic, nor should it be. Because it is virtually impossible to compare the letter grades students receive at different high schools, students who complete AP courses must take an online exam to demonstrate what they have learned in the courses.

That’s only fair, but what do you do if a computer glitch prevents you from completing the exam?

While the glitches in Kentucky apparently only involved end-of-the-yerar tests for AP classes, high-stakes tests in other states judge student proficiency and even determine teachers’ pay.

Thousands of students have been kicked offline while taking tests in recent weeks, postponing the testing schools planned for months and raising concerns about whether the glitches will affect scores.

“There’s been pep rallies and spirit weeks all getting ready for this. It’s like showing up for the big game and then the basketball is deflated,” said Jason Zook, a fifth-grade teacher at Brown Intermediate Center in South Bend, Ind.

Many frustrated students have been reduced to tears and administrators are boiling over, calling the problems “disastrous” and “unacceptable” at a time when test results count so heavily toward schools’ ratings under the federal No Child Left Behind law. In places such as Indiana, where former Gov. Mitch Daniels approved changes tying teachers’ merit pay to student test scores, the pressure is even greater.

CTB-McGraw-Hill is the contractor in Indiana and Oklahoma and administers statewide standardized tests in eight other states. Kentucky Department of Education spokeswoman Nancy Rodriguez said its vendor, ACT Inc., reported online issues in Kentucky and Alabama. American Institutes for Research, or AIR, is the contractor in Minnesota.

Kentucky Department of Education Associate Commissioner Ken Draut said the agency suspended online testing after about 25 districts reported slow and dropped connections from the ACT Vantage testing system.

The Kentucky Department of Education is moving to paper and pencil tests for the remainder of the school year after getting conflicting reports from test vendor ACT about its technology.

As professionals who daily depend on technology to do our jobs, we do not want to go back to the days of the typewriter, but we must say that we never suddenly lost a story that we had typed on paper. We can’t say the same about stories we have written on our computers.

Thus, by taking their tests with pencils and paper, there is little or no chance of those tests suddenly disappearing because of some mysterious “glitch.” It will take longer to grade those tests and because humans will be grading the tests instead of computers, this is likely a greater chance for errors.

But returning to the days of pencils and paper is the best option available for the state. Now today’s young people are learning first hand how it was done in the old days.

Meanwhile, the companies marketing the tests need to do more to assure the “glitches” are eliminated. There were so many problems with this year’s tests that one’s confidence in the exams and those who produce them has been shaken.