Testing Errors Plague Industry

By Barbara Miner

Lawyers expect their children to do well in school. When the daughter of a Minnesota attorney failed the math portion of the state test in May 2000, her father asked to see the exam.

His pleas were ignored, and one state official told him “to have his daughter study harder for next year’s exam.” But it turns out the daughter’s failure was due to an error by the testing company, National Computer Systems, Inc. (NCS). She was one of almost 8,000 students who passed but were told they had failed.

Irate parents sued. In 2002, a Minnesota judge ruled that the test errors were caused by NCS’s drive to cut costs and raise profits.

The Minnesota example is one of several documented in a 2003 report titled “Errors in Standardized Testing,” by the National Board on Educational Testing and Public Policy (NBETPP) at Boston College.

Errors in testing are increasing, according to the report. Although only one testing company reported a mistake in 1976, the number jumped to 14 in 1999 and has remained steady. Yet there is no independent agency overseeing the testing industry and ensuring the reliability of its tests.

“In contrast to the airline industry where the reporting of mistakes is considered advantageous, and the consumer products sector where publications like Consumer Reports publicize errors, the testing industry is shrouded in secrecy,” the report says.

Walt Haney, a Boston College professor who works with the NBETPP, worries that errors will increase because “there just aren’t enough trained people out there to develop the increased number of tests in a sound and reliable way.”

Testing companies do their best to keep the content of tests a secret as well. Unfortunately, the courts seem to be obliging them. In Florida, a state appeals court ruled last year that copies of the state’s standardized exams are not public records and parents have no right to see them. And this October, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a ruling that a Chicago teacher who reprinted parts of the city’s standardized tests violated copyright law.

The teacher, George Schmidt, had reprinted the tests in his grassroots newspaper, Substance, in part to make the public aware of the tests’ oftentimes inane content.

Schmidt said he was disappointed by the decision “because it so reinforces the corporate version of children’s education, and it enables any petty tyrant at any level of government to use copyright laws to suppress what little freedom of the press we have left.”