MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
It's that time of year in many states, teachers are passing out booklets with little circles on them. But in Illinois and elsewhere, testing season has been marred by delays and scoring glitches.
NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.
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.
(Soundbite of teacher and students)
Mr. Ken Kinsella (Teacher, Millstadt Elementary School): Okay, Miss Johnson is passing around your pencils. No...
CORLEY: The state's testing firm, Harcourt Assessments, had delivered the school districts 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.
Mr. KINSELLA: 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 that school had to get a waiver to push back its test date by a week.
Principal GARY HUWER (Millstadt Elementary School): 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 state's 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.
Principal HUWER: I'm not sure they were ready for the volume or the magnitude of the tests statewide, and I think anytime you rush to get things going, you make mistakes.
CORLEY: Millstadt wasn't the only school district complaining, Maeta Menton(ph) 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 threatened to drop Harcourt's contract.
Ms. MAETA MENTON (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 2500 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 everyone 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 the 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 test, there isn't enough of an expansion in the testing companies to be able to process the tests adequately and 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 state's to come up with science tests in addition to reading and math.
Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.