News

Testing under lock and key

By MIKE HALLIDAY

The Mirror

Only four people –– three women and one man –– in the school district have a key to a chain-link fence separating an area the size of a garage inside a warehouse on South 320th Street.

They aren’t School Board members, and the male keyholder isn’t superintendent Tom Murphy, but the fact that four people out of the 3,700 employees at Federal Way Public Schools have a key is one example of the effort made to keep the WASL secure.

Federal Way school officials estimate that in the 2004-2005 school year, the district spent more than $22,700 and more than 1,700 hours administering the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL). More than 12,600 students in the district will take the test this year. Part of that job is making sure the tests are accounted for and keeping as few people as possible from coming in contact with the test.

Starting Monday, high school students will take the math and science portions of the WASL. They will finish on April 21. Middle and elementary schoolers, depending on their grade, will take all or part of the exam between Monday and May 4. High school students took the reading and writing portions last month.

The WASL is the most important test students in third through eighth-grades and sophomores take during the year. The results determine whether districts meet state and federal standards, whether students are learning state requirements and if high school students will graduate starting in 2008.

Policies and procedures have always existed, but with the test now a graduation requirement security, documentation and scrutiny surrounding the test has increased, say district and state officials.

“There was nowhere near the scrutiny of the chain of command,” Pat Cummings, the district’s director of assessment, said of the days when the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) was given.

More students at different grade levels take the test now than when it was first proctored more than a decade ago. Now third through eighth-grade students take some portion of the test. While sophomores are required to take the exam, freshmen can now take it a year early and juniors who failed can take it again.

School officials worry about the costs and complexities of administering the WASL.

Before students see the test booklets in their classrooms, a limited number of employees in the district will have counted the tests and taken them from the fenced-in area in plastic tubs fastened shut with straps to a secure room in each school where another select group of teachers, counselors and administrators will count all of the exams and monitor them as they go to and from classrooms.

The measures are based on instructions from the state superintendent of public instruction. The state agency has two committees –– one made up of nationally-recognized experts in education and one comprised of educators from across the state –– who create the policies districts will follow, according to Paul Dugger, the state’s assessment coordinator.

The effort is to prevent cheating, lost tests and give all students a fair chance, state and local officials say. It’s an aspect of the test most people don’t see, and few realize is paid for entirely by the school district.

Delivery from Iowa

The WASL exams are printed in Iowa City, Iowa and shipped to school districts in Washington. Federal Way received nine pallets weighing a total of 13,000 pounds. There were 739 boxes with tests inside, bundled in groups of 10 in plastic. More than 37,000 booklets came to the district.

An employee in the district’s assessment department –– either Kathy Hoppenrath, Rusty Dupree or Robin Farrar –– signed for the delivery, officials said. It was the first of many signatures after the tests arrive.

The three ladies and Cummings are the four employees with keys to the secured area at the district’s warehouse.

The district stored the tests at its warehouse for years, but it was only this year the state required districts to have a secure area, and the fence was installed.

When the tests were delivered, they were locked away behind the fence. Then Hoppenrath, Dupree, Farrar and a small group of temporary employees –– usually retired teachers and educators –– took the tests from the boxes. They didn’t break the tests out of their plastic wrappings, but made sure a cover sheet listed the correct amount and the number assigned to each test. They were put into heavy plastic tubs with the names of schools and secured with two plastic straps before going to the schools.

Each school has a test administrator who is assisted by a few employees. The administrators at elementary schools are typically counselors and at middle schools are counselors or vice principals, while the high schools designate a vice principal to coordinate the testing as part of their duties, Cummings said.

The schools have rooms designated for holding the tests. Some schools’ officials jokingly refer to the space as the “war room.” Usually it doesn’t get a lot of traffic during the school year, and some schools have had the locks changed to limit access, district officials said.

At the high schools, the tests are hand-delivered to the test administrators, who sign that they have received them, Cummings said.

Tests are counted before being distributed to classrooms to make sure schools have the correct amount. Each test is also assigned a number that goes with each student taking the WASL.

Students take the WASL over several days, and districts across the state take the test at the same time –– another security precaution. Cellphones and other electronic devices are turned off and in backpacks or purses.

It only takes one student with a camera in their cellphone to damage the test’s credibility and require a backup, Jewell said. That means more time and money.

Only school employees who have been trained in proctoring the WASL are allowed to be in the classrooms when the test is given. Training comes from the top down. The state trains district personnel, who then train the schools’ staffs.

During the testing period, Dupree, Hoppenrath and Farrar answer several telephone calls from test administrators who encounter problems. The three women act has advisors and judges since they know the state’s rules best.

No rules prohibit a teacher from proctoring the test for their students. All proctors sign statements declaring they did their duty as outlined by the training, Cummings said.

A new rule is the students’ test booklets can’t be left in class at the end of the day, but must be returned to the holding room where they are inventoried for the night.

Students who don’t speak English as their first language can have an interpreter read the directions to them. The interpreters also go through the test training.

Special-education students who can take a test appropriate for their mental development are individually proctored.

Documenting, discipline

If a test is missing or there is a duplicate, a documenting full-court press begins and stress levels go up. Sometimes the test is placed in the wrong plastic tub at the warehouse or it doesn’t arrive from the printer. Whatever happened, the test must be found or there must be an explanation of why it can’t be located. The state will find out and come asking.

Other times, tests disappear between classrooms and the holding room. Last year, employees at one school were searching a Dumpster at 7 p.m. to find a test they believed was accidentally thrown away by a janitor, Cummings said.

The number of tests lost statewide is small –– about 200, Dupree said.

After testing is over, the tests are sent back to the district’s warehouse. The tests have already been counted by the test administrators at the schools. Inside the warehouse, Hoppenrath, Dupree and Farrar and their small army of temporary employees spend the next several days going through the tests again. All scratch sheets are removed and shredded. The tests are organized by grade and subject before being boxed up and sent back to Iowa City for grading.

The school district will get preliminary results over the summer, but the official numbers won’t come out until after Labor Day.

The fence will be locked.

Staff writer Mike Halliday: 925-5565, mhalliday@fedwaymirror.com

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