The recent high school basic-skills test snafu that caused nearly 8,000 students to be wrongly told they couldn't do math has touched off a torrent of finger-pointing in St. Paul among state officials who can't possibly imagine how such a thing could happen.
On Friday, Education Commissioner Christine Jax lambasted National Computer System, which was responsible for the scoring errors. Her outrage quickly boomeranged, however, when it was revealed that her department could have reacted to the mistakes much sooner if a bureaucrat contacted by a concerned parent hadn't left on a month's vacation and forgotten to have someone check her e-mails while she was gone.
While the test foul-up certainly caused needless pain to as many as 336 seniors who didn't graduate because of it, some tolerance is called for here. Anyone can make a mistake, including Jax, her staff, the bean-counters at NSC and the perturbed state lawmakers who held a hearing on the matter Monday.
This risk of failure can't be eliminated, unless we're willing to put computers in control of people, instead of the other way around -- a concept too chilling for all except science fiction writers to contemplate.
It may be time to ask whether the state isn't putting too much emphasis on so-called "high stakes" testing to determine who gets a diploma. Sen. Paul Wellstone thinks so. He has introduced federal legislation discouraging states from over-reliance on standardized tests.
This is probably going too far. The state can resolve the problem without intervention from Washington. And we can't abolish standardized tests without risking a return to the dark days when schools routinely graduated students who couldn't read.
However, the basic-skills mess shows that education should construct some kind of safety net beneath high stakes testing. We now know that not only can students fail tests, the tests can also fail students.
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