Held Back

State education leaders fail to meet the mark in testing


Two of the most important tests measuring the success of Idaho students are getting failing grades.

Earlier this year, the Idaho Department of Education learned that answers to the Idaho Reading Index test were available online, leading some to wonder if some teachers had been teaching directly to the test.

At the same time, the Idaho Board of Education was slapped with a hefty bill after officials there realized that the cost for administering the Idaho Standard Achievement Test to the second and ninth grades wasn't included in the price of its contract.

As a result, the state has canceled the ISATs for both grade levels in question, and the Department of Education is scrambling to find a way to secure the reading test without breaking the department's budget. Both the tests are designed by companies that hold multi-million-dollar contracts with the state, and both contracts are in their first year.

Last year, the Department of Education selected a test designed by AIMSweb for the IRI, which is used to find out how well young students are reading. The department spends $2.8 million on the test, a cost that includes funds for remedial classes for those students who are reading below grade level.

This fall, state officials learned that sections of the test were available on the company's Web site. For a $35 fee, anyone­—parent, teacher or administrator—could download the information.

Jolene Montoya, testing and technical coordinator for the Emmett School District, said her district first discovered the problem while exploring the AIMSweb Web site, and followed the process though to the payment option. From there, she called the state.

"We wouldn't want to send the impression that all teachers are out there cheating," Montoya said. "It's just the message it sends, especially if you're going to use it for accountability."

But that's not the first time someone realized there were security issues with the test.

Jackie Thomason, director of accountability and assessment for Meridian School District, said the materials are prevalent in schools across the state and are commonly used by special education teachers as a way of monitoring progress. Thomason said she never expected the test would use the same material. But when it arrived this fall, she realized she made the wrong assumption.

"The concern of ours was any kind of assessment test for accountability should be a secure test," she said. "It shouldn't be available to the public."

Melissa McGrath, spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said the department is not worried about any widespread cheating. "The teachers giving the assessment every single year know part of their job is not to teach to the test," she said. "We have faith in our teachers that's something they wouldn't do."

Nonetheless, the state has worked with AIMSweb to block access to that portion of the Web site to anyone in Idaho. But Thomason pointed out that a quick trip across the border would nullify that measure.

McGrath said they are working with AIMSweb to come up with a permanent solution to the problem, but no decisions have been made. Ideally, the state would like the company to create a separate test for Idaho, which would not be available online. But the cost of such an adaptation may prove prohibitive. The company is currently working on cost estimates for a fix, but BW's calls to AIMSweb were not returned.

Students take the IRI three times a year, and have already taken the first of the series. Additional tests are planned for January and April. While the security of the test is in question, administrators still feel it's a useful measure of student achievement.

The nagging problem continues to be the fact that the state uses the IRI as an accountability measure for schools.

"It does provide schools good information, but I don't think we should be held accountable to a test that's not secure," Thomason said. "It's up to the state to decide on accountability standards. We could change that."

It's also a matter of money when it comes to the ISAT.

The Board of Education was forced to find a new test when it learned the previous one, administered by Northwest Education Associates, did not align to the standards set out in the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The only company that met the criteria was Data Recognition Corporation, which was awarded the contract, said board spokesman Mark Browning.

The first signs of a problem came after the test was given in the spring (the second of two testing periods), when the bill was significantly more than expected. It turns out that the cost for developing and administering the test for the second and ninth grades was not included in the contract.

"We didn't fully realize it was an add-on," Browning said.

The base contract for the 2007-2008 school year is valued at $4.95 million, which does not include $395,000 for the No Child Left Behind alignment study and $422,000 for performance-level descriptors, both of which are one-time expenditures.

Combined with the additional fees, it brings the total cost of the one-year services to $7.9 million. The contract for the 2008-2009 school year will cost just less than $6 million.

The board canceled plans for the second-grade test over the summer and recently voted to end the ninth-grade test, but not before spending $683,000 on the fall test and $265,000 on development of the now-canceled spring test. By canceling the spring test, Browning said the state will save roughly $832,000.

The decision to cancel the spring test has already drawn fire, in large part because of the way the decision was made.

The Spokesman-Review newspaper filed a complaint with the Idaho Attorney General's Office last week, charging that the Board of Education violated Idaho's open meeting laws by deciding to cancel the test while in executive session, which is closed to the public.

Browning said the decision came down to a matter of funding. Since the board had not budgeted for the additional cost, there was no money to continue. The extra funding is not part of the 2008-2009 budget request the board has already given to Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, so there's little chance the test will return next year.

Browning said the test cancellations will have no effect on federal funding since No Child Left Behind only requires tests in third through eighth grades and 10th grade. The unfortunate reality is simply that the state doesn't have the option of overextending itself.

"We have to live by a balanced budget," Browning said. "We don't have that credit card out there."

But Thomason points out that federal requirements only call for one accountability test per year—it's the state's decision to test students twice. She wonders why the board would choose to keep the fall tests while sacrificing testing two grade levels.

The board intends to honor the remainder of its five-year contract, but Browning said they have learned a tough lesson.

"Now we have more strategic structure in place to review contracts," he said. "We're going to painstaking efforts to make sure that any contract is absolutely going to be the best for us and the taxpayer."