Miscalculated scores, flawed questions and other errors on standardized tests have become near commonplace in public schools across the country, according to a new investigation by The Atlanta-Journal Constitution.
Repeated failures in quality-control measures have allowed mistakes to keep happening even as testing took on a more crucial role for students and teachers, the newspaper found. In some cases, students have been initially denied diplomas or entry into special academic programs because of incorrect scores.
The findings expose significant problems in the execution of the landmark No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which sought to use test scores to hold schools publicly accountable for students’ academic performance. The newspaper has previously reported other problems with standardized testing, exposing widespread cheating in Atlanta Public Schools. A follow-up investigation in 2012 revealed nearly 200 school districts nationwide had high concentrations of suspect scores.
In the current year-long investigation, the Journal-Constitution examined thousands of pages of test-related documents from government agencies - including statistics on exam questions, correspondence with contractors, internal reports and audits. The paper scrutinized more than 100 testing failures. It also obtained statistical reports on the quality of more than 92,000 test questions given over two years to students in 42 states and Washington, D.C.
The investigation revealed that almost one in 10 tests nationwide contained significant blocks of questions that were likely flawed. Such questions made up 10 percent or more of those tests - threatening their overall quality and raising questions about fairness.
“I think that’s just the bottom line,” said Matthew Johnson, a professor at Teachers College in New York City who advised the Journal-Constitution on this project. In some states, he said, “there is no quality control, or very little.”
Testing executives and state officials said they have been working to improve the exams and that most are fine.
Yet documents showed testing companies at times made the same mistake repeatedly, used inadequate measures to check for problems or failed to follow their own processes for preventing error. Cash-strapped states struggled to provide adequate oversight as they faced severe time constraints and grappled with inadequate or insufficiently trained staff.
New tests under development in many states to measure the Common Core standards will face similar challenges, the newspaper found, and some experts have called for creating a national oversight board to help states improve test monitoring.
The exams are critical for students such as Jake Crosby. He was one of 355 students to receive wrong scores on a reading test as a sophomore in high school in Connecticut in 2005.
“I literally spent the entire year after this thinking, ‘Should I retake this portion of this test?”’ Crosby recalled. “You’re thinking ‘What are colleges going to think about this? How will they perceive this?”