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Article of Interest - Testing

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Bridges4Kids LogoSea of Testing Data Buries U.S. Schools
Complex results, errors delaying state report cards.
by Stephanie Banchero, Chicago Tribune, November 26, 2003
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State officials are so overwhelmed by the data they must collect under federal education reform that many are releasing "school report cards" riddled with errors or delayed for so long that the information is virtually useless to parents and schools.

From Utah to Pennsylvania, education officials have been trying to analyze mounting piles of student test scores and teacher competency statistics and finding the task far more costly and time-consuming than they imagined.

Illinois education officials spent $845,000 on a new reporting system, but after repeated problems with the data, they released detailed information to districts only Tuesday--nearly a month after schools were legally bound by state law to publish it and eight months after students took the tests. Even now, some key analysis is missing.

The public reporting of the data is meant to help parents and other taxpayers make decisions based on the performance of schools and districts. If the information is not released until the school year is half over, parents are less likely to switch campuses or demand a better-prepared teacher.

The accuracy of the state report cards also is vital because schools, districts and states that fail to measure up can face sanctions as serious as school closings under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which became law early last year.

The law does not set a date for when the information must be made public, but federal officials had hoped state report cards would be published before the start of a new school year. Many states have failed to meet that goal, and others have made mistakes while trying.

In Louisiana, education officials sent out hundreds of error-ridden school report cards after a computer glitch incorrectly indicated whether groups of students had met state standards. Utah is still struggling to crunch the numbers and get them to parents and schools.

And even though Illinois districts now have the report card data, they have until Dec. 19 to distribute it to parents.

"A lot of states were not very well-prepared for what the law requires," said Bob Linn, co-director of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing. "We should expect some delays because it takes awhile to adjust to a new system, but I am surprised at how long the delays have been."

The federal law requires states to collect and analyze data on student test scores, graduation and attendance rates, and teacher competency levels. States must send the information to school districts, which then must provide it to parents.

Many states, including Illinois, have produced such report cards for years, but the law mandates more detailed reporting. For example, states must list student achievement and test participation rates by ethnic group, income level, special-education status and English language proficiency. They also must collect data on whether teachers are fully licensed.

If even one subgroup of students does not meet state standards, the school is placed on a warning list. If the subgroup continues to fail, the school can face sanctions. The same sanctions also apply to districts.

Across the nation, there are as many reasons for the report card delays as there are delays:

Students made errors when checking their ethnic background on test booklets. Teachers did not ensure that licensing files were up to date. School officials failed to properly classify student income level and special-education status. And states were not equipped to handle the voluminous data.

In Pennsylvania, districts submit teacher-licensing data in the spring. If a district files incomplete or erroneous information, the state flags it to local officials, said Brian Christopher, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

In years past, districts simply ignored the notice because no sanctions were associated with low teacher-competency rates. But the federal law requires schools to notify parents if an unlicensed educator teaches their children.

Christopher said that days before Pennsylvania officials were set to release the state report card, officials pulled parts of it after nearly 100 districts contended the teacher licensing numbers were incorrect. "Now that there are federal sanctions associated with this data, I guess people are starting to take it seriously," Christopher said.

Illinois experienced myriad problems with its data.

State officials found several cases where a student was labeled African-American on the math test booklet but was marked white on the reading exam. Many schools failed to identify whether students were low-income, making it impossible to determine if the school tested 95 percent of its poor children, as required by the federal law.

Lynne Curry, deputy superintendent for the state board of education, said districts statewide made thousands of data errors. State board employees were forced to call more than 300 districts to verify data.

Similar problems cropped up last year, but no one bothered to fix them because sanctions didn't kick in for most schools until this year.

"We preached to school districts about this last year, about how important it was for them to be accurate," Curry said. "But until the rubber meets the road, people don't seem to care all that much."

State officials blamed the delays in part on Deloitte Consulting of Chicago, the firm hired to develop the report card this year. The firm missed deadlines and created error-ridden documents, Curry said, and board employees spent weeks correcting the mistakes.

But Larry Ascough, spokesman for School District U-46 in Elgin, said the information is so late this year, the point is moot.

"This information is history," Ascough said. "These kids took the test ... months ago, and we already are gearing up to take the next state test in a few months. I'm not sure anyone even cares anymore."


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