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CMS Says Online Quizzes Gave Wrong Answers But Are Fixed Now

Canvas math problem 1.jpg
Brian Green
A parent's screen shot of a fourth-grade math question with no correct answer.

When a 9-year-old blames someone else for a bad test grade, parents might be skeptical. But in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, it may well be true. District officials acknowledge that when it comes to doing fourth-grade math, the system’s online tests have failed.

When Caroline and Brian Green’s daughter started her fourth-grade year at Oakhurst STEAM Academy, there was a shock: Instead of her usual A's and B's, she started getting F's.

CMS opened with all-remote learning, and the child was spending her days in a small-group pod. Both her parents work in the financial industry, so they know math. And when they started checking her math quizzes, they thought they must be missing something.

For instance, a multiple-choice question gave the number of seats at a football stadium and a baseball stadium and asked how many more seats were in the larger stadium. But all four answers were wrong.

"I didn’t know if it was the way that they were teaching," Caroline Green said. "I thought maybe it was me, so I reached out to the teacher."

Brian Green says a pattern became clear: "We started noticing that on every one of the quizzes or the tests, there was at least one question that did not have a right answer possible."

Rush Led To Errors

By mid-September, a lot of CMS families and teachers were experiencing the same thing. Beth Thompson, the district’s assistant superintendent for academics, says an ambitious attempt to provide online lessons and quizzes for all teachers didn’t quite make the grade.

"Like the data entry, in the haste to get it done and the multiple hands on the data entry, there were some that just got entered wrong," Thompson said.

Teachers across the country had to scramble to convert their in-person curriculum to remote learning when the pandemic closed schools last spring. At the end of last year, CMS vowed to provide more support in August, not knowing at the time whether classes would be in person, remote or some combination.

In the process, the district created a math problem of its own: Take more than 1,000 different courses and grade levels. Divide the work among some 400 teachers hired to create the templates over the summer. Subtract two weeks when the General Assembly changed the CMS start date from Aug. 31 to a mandatory statewide opening date of Aug. 17.

Thompson says officials were proud to get those online lessons finished on time but dismayed when they started hearing about mistakes.

"It doesn’t feel good, you know? Because our goal was not to create hardship or to create anything that has mistakes in it," she said.

September Frustration

Thompson says complaints about the district’s quizzes bubbled up in the first couple of weeks and peaked in mid-September — about the time Brian Green contacted WFAE.

A query on a CMS advocacy Facebook page generated more than 100 comments from parents and teachers saying they were experiencing problems. Several of those teachers declined to do interviews for fear of offending their bosses.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators says members reported several problems with the online testing, including correct answers marked wrong and students getting undeserved zeroes.

Online grading shot.jpg
Screen shot showing student answers that were marked wrong because the student put a zero before the decimal point.

Thompson says part of the problem is the nature of online testing. Human minds understand that there are several ways to use numbers and letters to give a correct answer, but computers only recognize what’s been entered.

"Like if the answer was four ounces, and students were manually typing in four, if they put o-u-n-c-e-s maybe they got it right. If they put o-z it was wrong — it’s not wrong, but it counted it wrong," Thompson explained.

And there were problems that just plain got it wrong, especially in fourth-grade math.

Fix Was Harder Than It Seemed

CMS started a spreadsheet listing all the errors that had been reported, but it still fell to individual teachers to correct them. That was frustrating, but Thompson says the district worried that a hasty fix could have unintended consequences, "like all student grades are gone, or, you know, all of the content disappears."

So it took a few more weeks before CMS rolled out a way to synchronize districtwide corrections.

"We’re not willing to gamble all of this content and risk all of this content without really vetting and doing our research first," she said.

Thompson says the proofreading and fact-checking has improved for second quarter, which starts Tuesday.

The Greens say their daughter’s experience has improved already. But they say the struggle was demoralizing for her and, Brian Green suspects, for faculty members across the district.

"The teachers and the principal at that school are fantastic," he said. "They’ve just been – ‘handcuffed’ might be the charitable way to describe what’s happened to them with the platform."

Of course, schools across America are figuring out remote learning strategies on the fly. North Carolina officials plan to survey districts on lessons they’ve learned. Beth Thompson, the CMS administrator, says the district is correcting its mistakes — and she hopes the overall approach becomes a model of success.

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