The superintendent of Indiana's public schools announced Friday she would seek more than $614,000 in damages from CTB/McGraw-Hill, the same day company President Ellen Haley apologized to lawmakers for failures in online standardized tests that caused chaos at the end of the school year.
Superintendent Glenda Ritz said the money she's seeking would cover fines laid out in the state's $95 million contract with the testing company and pay for an independent review of the test's validity and improved reporting data. Department of Education staff said the fines could easily grow to millions of dollars.
Indiana's troubles have punctuated a nationwide shift from pencil-and-paper tests to online exams. Troubles earlier this year disrupted high-stakes testing in Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota and Oklahoma. A bank of "overwhelmed" servers in New Jersey caused students in Oklahoma and Indiana to be consistently booted from the online test over two days at the end of April, McGraw-Hill executives said Friday.
"The consequences of CTB's server failures were real and significant for Indiana schools," Ritz said in a news release issued before McGraw Hill executives spoke to lawmakers.
A penitent Haley stood before legislators for more than an hour Friday afternoon, answering questions about whether the company underestimated the impact of the test shutdowns and if test results should be considered valid for any of the many high-stakes education formulas they're plugged into around the state.
"Let me begin first, by apologizing to you," she said. "I know it's unacceptable to you. Believe me; it's unacceptable to me, too."
McGraw-Hill employees ran "stress tests" on their servers and the Internet capabilities at schools across the state before signing off on complete transition from paper to online this year. Technicians could not foresee the crush of students taking the test all at once, however, and were forced to quickly add more virtual memory to the servers, she said.
Beyond the fines included in the contract, state lawmakers said many school districts dug into already-stretched budgets to cover overtime for teachers and staff to clean up the testing troubles.
"There were incredible costs overruns in these areas because of these problems," said state Rep. Kreg Battles, D-Vincennes, a high school chemistry teacher. Asked if the company should pay for local costs caused by the testing failure, Haley said she could not comment.
The scope of the testing troubles is still being determined, but many lawmakers detailed other major problems. Battles relayed stories of partial multiple choice lists showing up on students' screens without the correct answer to the question and problems with a separate McGraw-Hill test needed to graduate the third grade.
The McGraw-Hill team was contrite but narrow in their answers, declining to weigh in on the newly disclosed troubles.
Senate Education Chairman Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, said the public relations problems could end up being worse for the company than the fines.
"I think the embarrassment is a huge thing. I think that's a big penalty for them," he said. "Money counts — we for sure want money — but I appreciated them coming in and (Haley's) first phrase was 'I apologize.'"
Kruse said he's most concerned about the validity of the test results, which are used to factor everything from teacher pay to Indiana's school assessment system. McGraw-Hill is reviewing the results and Ritz hired an outside firm to conduct a separate analysis.
Indiana lawmakers plan to meet July 29 to review the results.