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State Department of Education: Despite glitches with Milestones, testing is going better than last year

Despite reports of online testing failures, Georgia Department of Education spokesman Matt Cardoza tells me the 2016 Milestones are going better than last year. In the 2014-2015 inaugural run of the Georgia Milestones, there was a statewide kink with the screen reader accommodations for students with special needs.

I'm not sure that assurance from DOE will allay the frustrations of parents such as the mother who posted on AJC Get Schooled Facebook: My kids have come home with stories every day about iPads breaking down, tests turning off, WiFi not working -- and then my middle daughter lived it today when she was unable to finish a test. It is a total shame children are subjected to this. Not fair at all.

High schools began their Milestones testing this week, while the testing window for middle and elementary schools opened three weeks ago.

Cardoza said the DOE has not heard much yet about high school testing snafus, but a teacher just posted on AJC Get Schooled Facebook: "Nearly all of North Fulton is down. Furious! Our high schoolers cannot refuse these tests like our elementary and middle schoolers."

The high school Milestones scores count for 20 percent of a student's grade, so there are serious consequences to refusing the test. There is less penalty to middle and elementary students as the tests do not count into grades and are only one factor considered in promotion and retention decisions.

Many problems have been around capacity and software updates at the district level. The sheer number of students going online is overwhelming local capacity, Cardoza said. Why didn’t these problems surface in trial runs by the districts?

“I don’t know if they had the same number of people getting on the servers at the same time; that is what seems to be the issue. If you did a dry run that didn't look at capacity  – and that is the most prevalent problem we have seen – it is going to be an issue for you,” said Cardoza.

Glitches are more common for students taking the Milestones on iPads rather than desktop computers. "Speaking as a parent whose daughter took the test last week, she was on a desktop with several kids while others were on iPads. The kids on the iPads had the issues, but she was able to finish her test," he said.

Are systems getting support?

Cardoza said DOE Deputy Superintendent Melissa Fincher and her staff in the office of assessment and accountability have been fielding calls from districts and providing assistance. They did not take off the state holiday Monday so they could be on hand to help. Cardoza said Data Recognition Corporation, the state's custom testing company, is also helping, even putting someone on the ground in Fulton County Schools where there have been more reports of test failures.

"DRC has been very responsive to us and the districts. We will continue to do what we can at our end and DRC will continue to do what it can. We recognize it is a disruption," Cardoza said. "We will continue to learn from the districts what the issues are and make improvements.

"Some of it is going to be ironing out what is working and what is not and looking at the configurations to ensure capacity is there and ready for that many students working at the same time," he said. "If there is a state issue or a contractor issue, we have made it pretty clear we'll hold the contractors accountable to do what they said in their contact. We did that last year when we recouped money back."

As the AJC reported last year:

Georgia's school test contractor will provide $4.5 million in sweat equity to make up for "disruptions" during the administration of the Georgia Milestones tests this spring, according to the Georgia Department of Education. CTB/McGraw-Hill, whose $23 million contract with Georgia is up for renewal, has agreed to make up for the disruptions by providing free services deemed to be worth $4.5 million.

(McGraw-Hill has since sold its custom testing arm to DRC.)

A Forsyth parent on an earlier blog offered an expert assessment on the computer challenges that I thought summed up the situation well:

It's a predictable combination of bandwidth issues, server strain, hardware failure and application errors. Fortunately there appear to have been fewer issues in Forsyth than in Fulton.

I've worked in IT for 25 Years and in my opinion our district does a pretty good job of implementing technology. But even here there isn't enough money to design and build infrastructure to support three nines service or to have enough devices for peak testing demand. There will always be application errors even with good quality assurance and I would not be surprised if the actual testing of these applications is shoddy. The fact that systems running above capacity are having higher failure rates is as predictable as the Braves mediocre season.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.