A Struggle to Handle 'No Child' Testing Mandates

States are struggling to meet testing requirements under the No Child Left Behind law. The limited number of companies that provide testing services has made it hard to service the new demand generated by the federal law.

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2006 marks the fifth year that schools across the nation have had to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Many schools have struggled to meet the testing requirements under the law because of problems with scoring and testing delays. Much of this comes from the limited number of companies that provide the test and related services. NPR's Cheryl Corley takes us to one such school in Illinois whose testing was put in jeopardy as the school waited for the tests to arrive.

CHERYL CORLEY reporting:

After nearly a week of waiting, this was either a day of anticipation or dread for students at Millstadt Elementary School in downstate Illinois, across the border from St. Louis.

Unidentified Man: Okay, Mr. Johnson is passing around your pencils. Nopeā€¦

CORLEY: The state's testing firm, Harcourt Assessments, had delivered the school district's tests late. But now, it was finally time for the seventh graders in teacher Ken Kinsella's class to grab their number two yellow pencils and take their state-mandated reading test.

Unidentified Man: Now, let's officially start.

CORLEY: And it's not a moment too soon for Gary Huwer. The school's principal still had boxes of the ISAT exams, or the Illinois Standards Achievement Test, stacked in his office bathroom. He said the school had to get a waiver to push back its test date by a week.

Mr. GARY HUWER (Principal, Millstadt Community Consolidated School District #160): Even then, we didn't have all the necessary materials. We were missing reader scripts, which our special ed teachers use for their students. We were also missing the paper rulers, well they never came either.

CORLEY: Under the federal No Child Left Behind provision, this is the first year states must test every child from third through eighth grade and one high school level grade in reading and math. That means millions of tests that must be accounted for, and Principal Huwer says that may be part of the reason for the state's problems with its new testing firm.

Mr. HUWER: I'm not sure they were ready for the volume or the magnitude of the test statewide and I think anytime you rush to get things going, you make mistakes.

CORLEY: Millstadt wasn't the only school district complaining. Meta Minton, with the State Board of Education, says the agency granted testing extensions to at least 130 Illinois districts, nearly one out of every five. And angry state officials threaten to drop Harcourt's contract.

Ms. META MINTON (Illinois State Board of Education): The silver lining here is that Harcourt is going to pay for the overtime, transportation, assorted costs that these districts have had to incur, caused by, you know, the fiasco with ISAT.

CORLEY: Harcourt Assessment, which declined an interview with NPR, said in a statement, its tardiness was caused by challenges with processing orders and delays in developing the test. There have been problems elsewhere, most recently in Alabama, where Harcourt made scoring errors on about 2,500 tests; and in Connecticut, where Harcourt was fined after providing incorrect reading scores for about 350 students. But Harcourt is not the only testing firm with problems.

Mr. JACK JENNINGS (President, Center on Education Policy): No, no it is not.

CORLEY: Jack Jennings is president of the DC-based Center on Education Policy. He's also a board member of another testing firm, Educational Testing Service. Jennings says just about every one of the half dozen companies that dominate the testing industry has made mistakes, most notably with the SAT.

Mr. JENNINGS: In fact, the College Board for the last month has had a series of problems with test results.

CORLEY: The test companies say the mistakes they make are small when compared to the millions of tests they give every year. Jennings says the crux of the problem is that there are too few testing companies, and a shortage of trained experts for them to hire.

Mr. JENNINGS: And so there aren't enough people being produced who can produce the tests. There isn't enough of an expansion in the testing companies to be able to process the tests adequately, in efficiency. And yet, the demands for more and more testing keep growing.

CORLEY: And there will be more of a challenge next year when the No Child Left Behind law will require states to come up with science tests in addition to reading and math.

Cheryl Corley, NPR NEWS, Chicago.

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