behind the scenes

What a day is like inside Pearson’s test scoring facility

Facing widespread backlash after years of controversies and testing glitches, one of the world’s largest testing companies is taking an unusual approach to quieting critics: It’s opening its doors.

Pearson, a British-based testing conglomerate that recently signed on for a two-year contract to aid in writing and administering Indiana’s ISTEP test, today invited Indianapolis reporters to its north side scoring facility in an effort to reveal how the company hand-scores questions on hundreds of thousands of student exams.

It’s part of a charm offensive from a company that depends on public contracts but is often at the center of public debate over testing in schools.

“We don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t pull back the curtain,” said Scott Overland, Pearson’s new director of media.

With parents and educators often skeptical about how exams are made and scored at a time when test scores can influence everything from teacher bonuses to whether schools are allowed to continue to operate, Pearson is hoping to allay fears by better explaining its work.

“We completely understand how this whole assessment process, the knowledge that parents and educators and the public has about that is limited,” Overland said as he led reporters through Pearson’s scoring facility on the third floor of a mid-sized office building.

The tour featured a short walk through the floor, which consisted of three large rooms and several small offices and conference rooms. Pearson executives and officials in charge of the scoring process explained how scorers, who must have a four-year college degrees, are recruited by reaching out to retired teachers, tutors and other educators. They receive about seven hours of in-person or online training and most learn to score just one open-ended question — including essays and math problems that require students to show their work to demonstrate that they understand the concept.

Multiple choice questions are graded by machine at Pearson’s main scoring facility in Iowa.

Pearson execs on the tour showed reporters how scorers log onto a computer platform where they see scanned images of student papers they must assess and grade. Their work is tested by “validity” questions that supervisors use to test their scorers for accuracy.

Scoring supervisors sit quietly at rows of tables in front of boxy computers in the scoring center. They’re in regular communication with the scorers themselves, who typically work from home across Indiana. Because scorers and supervisors don’t necessarily work regular business hours, many tables were sparsely filled Thursday morning.

Allison Tucker, a scoring supervisor for fourth-grade reading who’s been working with Pearson for more than 10 years, said one of her graders might do 70 questions in an hour. If a scorer gets off track and starts grading incorrectly, Tucker said that’s where the supervisors can step in.

“That’s one of the things that we really take seriously,” Tucker said. “So far it hasn’t been a problem for us.”

Few businesses in the education world are under as much day-to-day scrutiny as testing giants like Pearson, since just a handful of companies compete for lucrative state testing contracts and the chance to sell associated test prep materials for those exams.

Pearson is the largest education company in the world and a leader in standardized test development, having nabbed a contract for the multistate, Common Core-linked PARCC exam and one to handle the scoring for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

Yet it’s an industry frequently under fire when errors are discovered among millions of test questions or when problems arise with scoring or computer testing platforms. Every few weeks during standardized testing season, critics can seize on headlines reporting computer malfunctions or other testing disruptions.

Just yesterday, an employee error caused widespread test cancellation of New Jersey’s PARCC exam.

The problems aren’t limited to Pearson. Indiana’s 2015 ISTEP test, which was haunted by glitches and scoring delays was administered by California-based CTB, a Pearson competitor. CTB also ran into problems in 2013 when about 78,000 Indiana students taking the test on computers were interrupted over the course of several days — an error that forced CTB to pay $13 million in damages to the state.

Indiana then dumped CTB and hired Pearson last year with a more than $30 million contract to administer the 2016 and 2017 ISTEP exams, but the state is now looking to create yet another new exam for 2018.

The new exam will surely generate another a sought-after testing contract. So Pearson could be treating the ISTEP as something of an audition, trying to make a good impression in hopes of ongoing work.

“We recognize very much that this is critically important work we are doing,” said Melodie Jurgens, who oversees the general scoring process. “Our scorers are quite passionate, and they care a lot about how students do. They want to get it right because they know it’s important.”

Indiana is one of the first states where Pearson has invited reporters to tour its facilities, though earlier this week Overland said some national news outlets were given tours of the Iowa facility. The company hasn’t used such strategies in the past, he said, but plans to open up tours in other states going forward.

Granting this level of access to reporters isn’t a common move for testing companies, said Bob Schaeffer, spokesman for The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, an organization that acts as a testing watchdog. He said he’d been contacted by another reporter about a similar tour this past week but had never heard of this approach before.

But given the challenges Pearson has faced recently — including the loss of three major testing contracts in Florida, Texas and New York — it’s not necessarily a surprise.

“All the major testing companies have had computer testing failures,” Schaeffer said. “It shows an incredible pattern of technological failure that is more than the isolated glitch that they like to make it seem.”

Since Indiana switched to Pearson this year, things have gone relatively smoothly. The state officially started its second round of 2016 ISTEP tests this week, and few problems have been reported.

But Schaeffer said Indiana has “jumped from the frying pan into the incinerator” by making its test vendor switch.

“It’s a perverse game of musical chairs in which a state might reject a contract with a vendor for doing a bad job and hires a new vendor who has time available because they just got fired from another job,” Schaeffer said.

Testing Testing

“ILEARN” is in, ISTEP is out — Indiana legislature approves test set to begin in 2019. Now awaiting governor’s OK.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter

A little more than a year ago, lawmakers made the dramatic call to “repeal” the state’s beleaguered ISTEP test without a set alternative.

Friday night, they finally decided on a plan for what should replace it.

The “ILEARN” testing system in House Bill 1003 passed the House 68-29 and passed the Senate 39-11. Next, the bill will go to Gov. Eric Holcomb for him to sign into law.

The new test would be used for the first time in 2019, meaning ISTEP still has one more year of life. In the meantime, the Indiana Department of Education will be tasked with developing the new test and finding a vendor. Currently, the state contracts with the British test writing company Pearson.

House Speaker Brian Bosma said he was very pleased with the compromise, which he thinks could result in a short, more effective test — although many of those details will depend on the final test writer.

However, a number of Democrats, and even some Republicans, expressed frustration with the testing proposal.

“The federal government requires us to take one test,” said Sen. Aaron Freeman, a Republican from Indianapolis. “Why we continue to add more and more to this, I have no idea.”

For the most part, the test resembles what was recommended by a group of educators, lawmakers and policymakers charged with studying a test replacement. There would be a new year-end test for elementary and middle school students, and High schools would give end-of-course exams in 10th grade English, ninth-grade biology, and algebra I.

An optional end-of-course exam would be added for U.S. government, and the state would be required to test kids in social studies once in fifth or eighth grade.

It’s not clear if the plan still includes state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick’s suggestion to use an elementary and middle school test that would be “computer-adaptive” and adjust difficulty based on students’ answers.

The plan does make potentially significant changes to the state’s graduation requirements. Rather than having ECAs count as the “graduation exam,” the bill would create a number of graduation pathways that the Indiana State Board of Education would flesh out. Options could include the SAT, ACT, industry certifications, or the ASVAB military entrance exam.

Test researchers who have come to speak to Indiana lawmakers have cautioned against such a move, as many of these measures were not designed to determine high school graduation.

While teacher evaluations would still be expected to include test scores in some way, the bill gives some flexibility to districts as to specifically how to incorporate them, said Rep. Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican and the bill’s author.

Currently, law says ISTEP scores must “significantly inform” evaluations, but districts use a wide range of percentages to fit that requirement.

You can find all of Chalkbeat’s testing coverage here.

Starting early

It’s not just older students. Tennessee second-graders also started testing this week in nearly 100 districts

PHOTO: Grace Tatter

When LaRita Mitchell was a third-grade teacher, she often found her students were starting behind. They were just beginning to work with multiplication tables when the state’s standards assumed they’d already mastered them. They hadn’t yet encountered division.

“We noticed things that we thought were taught in second grade were not, and we could see a huge gap,” said Mitchell, who works at Sherwood Elementary in Memphis.

Then, Mitchell switched to teaching second grade, and she understood why her students’ had gaps in knowledge. “Second grade used to be more like first grade on steroids,” she said. “Third grade was a huge jump.”

This year, Mitchell’s second-graders are taking a new state standardized test aimed at keeping their students on track in reading and math. It’s shorter than the TNReady assessments that older students are taking but, like TNReady, it’s supposed to better gauge academic skills.  

State officials hope the new second-grade assessment, which is optional for districts, will provide valuable data to both second- and third-grade teachers. That data, they say, should help Tennessee reach its goal of getting 75 percent of third-graders reading on grade level by 2025.

A lot of emphasis is put on third-grade tests. It’s the first year the state has test score data for all students, and research shows that if students are behind in third grade, it’s challenging to catch up.

Before this year, districts could administer the SAT-10, a Pearson-designed test that was not aligned to Tennessee’s standards. That bothered teachers, because SAT-10 tested things, like coordinated grids, that Tennessee teachers were not supposed to teach in the second grade, according to their standards.

“This is crazy,” Cindy Cliche remembers thinking about the SAT-10 tests when she taught second grade for Rutherford County Schools.

“That’s why I was so excited that the state was actually developing a test based on second-grade standards,” said Cliche, now a math coordinator for Murfreesboro City Schools. “ … I want a test that will truly give us information about our students.’”

In addition to being aligned with the state’s standards, Tennessee’s new Questar-administered test has similar questions to TNReady assessments for third- and fourth-graders. Those emphasize the types of literacy skills that the State Department of Education is pushing under its “Ready to be Ready” initiative. Just as with the SAT-10, the new test scores will be used to measure improvement in third grade that will be part of third-grade teacher evaluations.

Tennessee isn’t alone in finding early testing useful. Federal law doesn’t require annual testing until the third grade, but 35 states have some sort of test for younger students. Fifteen, including Tennessee, have a single statewide assessment for younger students, while other states allow districts to choose from a menu.

But unlike 29 other states, Tennessee doesn’t require districts to administer a test before third grade; districts decide whether to opt-in.

Still, nearly 100 districts — far more than half of Tennessee’s 146 — are using this year’s test, around double the districts that used the SAT-10 last school year.

Despite its national popularity, testing in early grades has a lot of critics. Younger students don’t have the same skillset as older ones when it comes to standardized testing, the critics say. In addition to the challenge of understanding the purpose of testing, younger students often can’t sit still as long and have a harder time holding pencils and bubbling in answers.

Mitchell says her students struggle with testing — but they do it all year, since Shelby County Schools, like many districts, also require MAP tests, which stand for Measurements of Academic Progress.

“You can only read a question one time. What happens if a child was asleep and didn’t catch it?” she said. “I had a little boy and he was out cold. He was like two to three questions behind. I’m thinking, ‘Oh well, what do you do?’”

The good news for sleepy students is that the state’s test is relatively short. And at Mitchell’s school, it will be administered in the morning, when students are more alert. Each part of the test is 40 minutes, and students take it spread across four days. Students can write their answers in the test booklet, rather than transferring them to a bubble sheet, like older students.

“They’ll probably think TNReady is a breeze coming off of the MAP testing,” Mitchell said.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen says that the test is designed not to be boring.

“They’re interesting questions, questions that require thinking, which makes it much more engaging for students,” she said.