Glitches allow students to take school admissions test from home

WASHINGTON – The answering machine at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County tells the story:

“On Saturday, Jan. 25, Fairfax County Public Schools administered the SIS and essay portions of the TJ admissions process. We unfortunately experienced significant technical issues at our testing sites.”

The Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology — a school that aims to improve education in science, mathematics, and technology — requires students to complete an admissions process involving essays and a student information sheet (or SIS). The SIS is made up of three questions designed to learn about an applicant’s prior experiences, goals and interests.

On Jan. 25, the technical issues resulted in student responses getting lost or partially lost in the computer system. Debbie Ratliff, a mom of one of the applicant semi-finalists, 14-year-old Eric, says at the end of the first part of the 90-minute test, her son attempted to save and close his work.

“He got kicked out and kicked on to the log-in page,” Debbie says.

Debbie says her son found that part of his essay was deleted. A proctor allowed him time to reconstruct the deleted portion. But his experience wasn’t unique.

When it was determined that the glitches were widespread among the 1,500 applicant semi-finalists, the Fairfax County School system decided the best solution would be to scrap the results and allow the students a do-over, of sorts. This time, the students can complete the SIS and essay online from home.

Debbie and Eric share one concern: That parents will interfere by either editing or even writing the essays themselves. The school is highly competitive and U.S. News & World Report ranked the Alexandria, Va., school as the No. 4 best high school in the nation in 2013.

“You know, this is Fairfax County, and a lot of parents are overly involved in their kids’ lives and we’re afraid that this is just not going to be the kids’ work,” Debbie says.

Eric, an 8th grader at Glasgow Middle School, says he is concerned also.

“I think that some of the kids are getting extensive help from their parents to prepare for the tests,” Eric says.

At the same time, Eric says he doesn’t blame FCPS and feels bad for those administering the tests.

“I didn’t feel like it was their fault, but I recognized it had to be someone’s fault,” he says.

Eric says he’s disappointed, not angry and he’s working hard on his own. Students can complete the essay writing for the test at home between Feb. 6 and Feb. 11.

“I think it’s a terrible situation and I feel for the people in [Fairfax County Public Schools], honestly,” Debbie says.

Fairfax County Public Schools spokesman John Torre explained students “must affirm prior to submitting their completed SIS and essay that the work they are submitting is their own,” he said in an email to WTOP.

“We’re confident students will maintain the integrity of the exam,” Torre said in the email.

As to what caused the computer glitch in the first place, Torre says “It was the first time this portion of the exam was administered online. We will continue to work with the vendor to correct the technical issues so that these difficulties do not happen again.”

The school system didn’t identify the vendor.

More than 3,000 students took the initial exam in December. Close to 1,500 semi-finalists will retake the SIS and essay portions of the application requirement at home. Admissions offers will be made in April.

The taped message at the school says :

” We are now assessing the extent of the testing difficulties and are deeply sorry for the problem.”

WTOP’s Kate Ryan contributed to this report.

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