Foss: Questar fails the test


Categories: Opinion, Schenectady County

I took a lot of tests when I was growing up.

And I can tell you exactly how many times a test had to be postponed due to a computer glitch: zero 

I hate to adopt an “in my day, it was better” attitude toward standardized testing, but I can’t recall ever experiencing anything quite like last week’s disastrous roll-out of computer-based testing. 

Students in districts throughout the state had trouble logging in to take their tests. They had trouble submitting test results. Some students received “system error” messages when answering questions. Some teachers found themselves unable to administer the test properly due to technological failures. 

Ever since the state announced that it was shifting to computer-based testing, I’ve been skeptical. 

I’ve wondered whether there was any real advantage, as far as the students are concerned, to taking tests on a computer. Wouldn’t any computer-based testing system be vulnerable to a system failure or data breach? 

The more I thought about it, the more I questioned the notion that taking a test on a computer is inherently better than taking a test the old-fashioned way. For students, the benefits seem minimal, at best. When I’m listing the things students really need, computer-based testing doesn’t exactly rise to the top of the list. 

But it’s easy to understand why tech and testing companies might pretend otherwise. 

After all, they stand to gain millions from selling states on the idea that computer-based testing represents some vast improvement for students and teachers alike. As we saw last week, that’s not necessarily the case. 

Technology is almost always presented in a positive light, as a tool for solving problems and making our lives easier.  

What often goes under-discussed is that technology sometimes creates problems, problems it costs time and money to solve. 

Now that we have computer-based testing, we have new problems to solve. 

Questar Assessment, the company that develops the state’s third-through-eight grade reading and math exams, is being paid pretty handsomely for its services: In 2015, the company was awarded a $44 million contract by the state Education Department. 

For that kind of cash, you expect better service than what we’ve seen thus far. 

The testing glitches aren’t even the state’s first problem with Questar. 

In January, the company experienced a data breach that impacted about 50 students. 

The company’s problems aren’t isolated to New York. 

Last year, about 9,4000 Tennessee students received incorrect test scores due to a problem with the company’s test-scanning program. 

I’d like to think that New York will fix its testing problems and that we’ll never hear the name Questar Assessment again. 

But I’m not optimistic. 

Nor am I convinced that using a pencil to take a test is such a bad way to go. 

Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at [email protected] Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.

Leave a Reply