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Topeka The Kansas State Board of Education decided this week that all public schools will remain accredited next year, regardless of the outcome on this year's reading and math assessments.
That will come as good news to schools that started administering the new tests Monday and immediately ran into problems using a new online system known as KITE, which was developed at Kansas University.
"The first couple of hours looked good," said Marianne Perie, co-director of KU's Center for Educational Testing and Evaluation, which designed the new system. "But as more and more students logged on, it overloaded the system."
Lawrence school district officials said they experienced few problems because most of their classes are waiting until after spring break, which begins Monday, before giving the tests.
But schools that did begin testing this week on the first day of the state's “testing window” reported numerous problems, ranging from students being unable to log into the system, to the system itself seizing up so students couldn't finish the tests they began.
As of Wednesday, according to the Kansas Assessment Program's website, the system was functioning normally. But Perie said problems could surface again after spring break, when the vast majority of schools plan to begin testing.
"The ratio of completed to attempted tests is not one we're necessarily happy with," Scott Smith, director of assessments at the Kansas State Department of Education, told the state board Tuesday. "But CETE is putting in patches every night to increase the server capacity on their end. Our goal is, if everyone in Kansas wanted to test at the same time, we need to be able to have that capacity."
The Kansas Interactive Testing Engine, or KITE, is the online system developed at KU that both delivers the tests to classroom computers around the state and scores the tests once they're completed.
It's designed to handle more complex, “technology-enhanced” test questions than the standard true-false or multiple-choice questions that have been used in the past. That's because the new Common Core standards for reading and math call for students to do more than recall facts. They require students to use critical-thinking and problem-solving skills to apply their knowledge.
Brad Neuenswander, deputy education commissioner for learning services, said that the state originally didn't expect to use the use KITE system until next year when the state fully implements new tests aligned to the Common Core standards.
A year ago, when state officials were making plans for this year's test, Neuenswander said it was assumed Kansas would contract with the multi-state Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium to design the Common Core-aligned tests, which will be available in the 2014-2015 academic year.
For this year, he said, the state contracted with CETE to develop “transitional assessments” that would be aligned to the Common Core standards and have some technology-enhanced items. Meanwhile, it was also contracting with CETE to develop the KITE engine, which could be used to deliver any kind of test the state wanted.
In December, though, the state board voted not to use Smarter Balanced and instead to contract with CETE to develop all of the state assessments.
Neuenswander said the schedule for launching the KITE system was moved up a year because teachers and administrators in Kansas told the department they wanted to pilot the new kind of test and the new testing engine at the same time so that, hopefully, all of the bugs could be worked out when the new tests are fully implemented next year.
“So it's going to be a great learning year for schools,” Neuenswander said. “But we have to kind of remember, we knew the pros and cons going into it. Now we're kind of experiencing it.”
The good news, he said, is that most people seem pleased with the test items themselves — the actual questions and problems that students are presented.
But because they are new tests, aligned to a new set of standards, the scores students receive, and the overall ratings of schools and districts, will bear no relationship to any previous test results.
Although the tests have little real impact for students themselves — they don't determine whether a student passes a course, advances to the next grade or qualifies for graduation — they are important for the schools themselves, and for the Kansas State Department of Education, because they are used as the basis for accrediting schools and qualifying for federal education funding.
Students are tested in reading and math each year in grades 3-8, and once in high school. The state also gives tests in alternating years in either science or history and government to students in selected elementary, middle school and high school grades.