More than 1,300 Beaufort County students will spend the weekend preparing for another stab at the ACT exam, after seeing their first attempt scrubbed earlier this month because the testing service’s online servers couldn’t handle the volume.
The March 2 exams, required of all South Carolina students in their third year of high school, were abandoned after little more than an hour when the screens on students’ testing tablets began to freeze up while the countdown timer continued to tick. And Beaufort County wasn’t alone.
“It was pretty expansive across the state,” said Ryan Brown, spokeman for the S.C. Board of Education. “They were not able to handle large numbers of students online. ... We’re certainly not happy with ACT right now.”
In Beaufort County, the test will be re-administered across all six district high schools next Tuesday — using traditional paper and pencil.
“Students have been informed that nothing that happened the first time is going to count against them,” said district spokesman Jim Foster. “We’re just going to start over. Whatever they had done to the point where it all went south is not going to count.”
That had to come as a relief to students who anxiously watched the countdown timer on their tablets continue to move even as nothing else on the screen did.
“It would either freeze up — showing white — or stayed on the question (just answered),” said Daniel Fallon, the district’s director of data services. “But the clock was running.”
This marks the second year of mandatory ACT testing in South Carolina, which uses the results to measure school performance. The ACT takes the place of an end-of-year exit exam, which all students had to pass before receiving their diplomas.
With the change, students also can use their ACT score in the college application process.
“Not only do they get scores to apply for college,” Foster said, “but the state gets a uniform measurement of high school achievement based on the test.”
Unlike last year, though, when districts had the option of using the ACT’s paper version, everyone was required to administer the test online. So while no online problems were reported a year ago, it didn’t take long for them to crop up this time.
“Students started noticing problems almost immediately,” Foster said.
Nor did it help when district officials were first told by ACT that the problem was isolated.
“We were told by ACT that we were the only district experiencing the problem,” said Mark Chauhan, the district’s technology services officer. “Within an hour, we received an email from the state explaining we weren’t on our own little island.”
In fact, Brown said, various districts had reported difficulties going back to the first day of testing on Feb. 28. ACT has taken responsibility for some of South Carolina’s online testing failures, he added, but not all of them.
“Part of the contract is they have the capability of giving this test in every school, every district online,” Brown said. “That part of the deal has not been upheld.”
Fallon noted that the freezing issue appeared to be staggered among schools as the March 2 session went along.
“Some might have experienced it 45 minutes in, others an hour or an hour and a half in,” he explained. “So a second school reports (problems), now we’re getting word of a third school.
“We concluded that even if a school wasn’t reporting a problem, we knew one eventually would occur. That’s when we sent out word that we weren’t testing any further.”
Districts were given the option of re-administering the test either online or with pencil and paper. As far as Beaufort County was concerned, there wasn’t even a choice.
“From the time we declared testing done, we pushed the state to get paper and pencil materials from ACT to us as soon as possible,” Fallon said. “We’re not going down that road again this year.”