By Tim Linscott
“It is like waiting for a train wreck. You know it is about to happen and you can’t stop it and you are not sure how bad it will be. You just have to move forward,” said Nicole Long, curriculum coordinator for Perkins County Schools, about the recent statewide problems with the online software involving NeSA (Nebraska State Assessment) testing.
This school year the Nebraska Board of Education rolled out new software for NeSA testing.
In January the writing portion of NeSA tests were conducted and some districts had difficulty with the new software.
“Some schools had technical difficulties,” Long described the situation, explaining that some students taking the test would be locked out of the program suddenly and formatting issues with the software were evident. “Some schools feel those glitches could skew results.”
Long notes that some schools may, or may not have, lost information from the test due to the glitches.
Perkins County did not have any major issues with the first round of testing in January. The state department of education instructed DRC (Data Recognition Company) the firm that built the software for the testing process, to fix any software issues in February.
The software fix resulted in all computers in the district needing to be updated, a task that fell on Perkins County Schools technology coordinator Michelle Evans.
Evans spent easily over 20 hours updating computers for the district as a means of putting PCS students on an even keel with the rest of the state student body.
“It has been pretty constant updating since February,” Evans said, adding she has been through every student computer at least three times since February. “I can’t even begin to come up with the number of hours I’ve spent updating.”
There was more than one update to catch all machines up-to-date.
Over 220 computers were updated at least three times.
The juniors at Perkins County High School took the NeSA reading test on April 1-2 and only one student had difficulty getting in to take the test.
There have been issues, however, in getting in to use the practice system.
Teachers and students can be frustrated when it is difficult to practice for a test.
“The students are so frustrated by the software they are not putting an emphasis on the content they are being tested on,” Long said. “That is what worries me the most.”
The state allowed for a longer window of time to practice for the tests but Long explained that would put students taking the test in the second week in May.
“Do you want to be testing kids that close to the end of the school year? I think kids are just done by then,” Long said.
Having such an emphasis on NeSA tests also makes Long a bit nervous.
“It is just nerve wracking because the state puts so much emphasis on these tests for districts,” Long said. “I can foresee this being somewhat controversial if districts do have issues with the software, can they use those results in turn to rank the schools?”
Long expects it to be hard to tell if a district had issues with NeSA tests.
“I don’t know if the state has any way of truly telling if schools did or did not have issues,” Long said. “Down the line, if results go down, a district can say, ‘Oh, yeah, we had difficulties during testing season.’ There are too many variables to tell whether districts are or are not having issues.”
If a district calls the state to document issues with the software, there is one way of gauging issues with the software, however, some districts may try to fix the problem in-house or simply not bring the issue to the attention of the state department of education.
Finding a balance between what is productive for the students and knowing when to not practice for a test is being done by PCS staff at the moment.
“I know several teachers, during the updates, decided to wait a week and let the software issues get resolved,” Long said. “We want the teachers to use the practice system but if it is not productive, it is not doing anyone any good.”
Long hopes that the state department of education does not go with a different company due to the snafus contributing to the current software company.
“In my opinion, I hope they don’t decide to go with yet another new company and we have another year of new software,” Long said. “Is that an improvement for us? I don’t think so. I think they need to get it figured out and move forward and make the updates they need to.”
“There have been some bumps along the way but we want them (state board of education) to stay with the same provider and figure this out over the summer. We don’t want them to scrap this and go with another provider and we go through this all over again, that is our biggest fear,” Evans said.