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Computer-based testing to resume Thursday

State education officials say contractor's lack of 'free memory' caused Tuesday's problems

New York education officials hope to one day provide computer-based state tests to over 1 million students; on Tuesday, the company contracted to deliver those tests failed to ensure enough “free memory” on its servers to accommodate around 93,000 students logging in for tests.

That lack of free memory caused widespread delays across the state for students signing in to annual English language arts tests as well as issues for students and teachers as they tried to submit completed tests, echoing a chaotic rollout to statewide computer testing last year.

Computer-based testing is set to resume Thursday, though, after state education officials on Wednesday said they had resolved technical issues that caused Tuesday’s problems. Officials said an analysis of the issues and a plan to ensure they don’t recur had been reviewed by independent experts.

Questar Assessment, the Minnesota-based testing company working under a five-year $44 million contract to develop and deliver both computer and paper tests to students across the state, would be held accountable for the mistakes, state education officials said Wednesday.

“There is no excuse for the difficulties experienced by schools,” state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said Wednesday in a conference call with reporters. “We are holding Questar accountable for failing to provide services required in our contract.”

Elia said state officials were reviewing the contract and planned to impose financial penalties for Questar’s failures as well as consider whether to cancel the contract, which expires in November 2020 after one more year of state testing.

Thursday’s computer testing will be limited to students in fifth and eighth grades – or a different grade in districts where fifth and eighth graders have already completed the tests – in an effort to prevent another flooding of computer systems.

In Schenectady City School District, for example, schools planned to continue computer testing for students in fifth and eighth grade, who still needed to finish a second day of testing, district spokesowoman Karen Corona said. Computer testing for students in other grades will go on next week.

School districts have the option to scrap computer testing and instead deliver the state tests on paper, Elia said Wednesday. Not all students are slated to take the tests on computers, but districts have started to move more of the testing to computers in the past two years as state officials eye a transition to statewide computer testing for all students – eventually.

The state Education Department as recently as this week listed a “goal” of reaching statewide computer testing by next year – a date some local district officials have cited as they communicated with families about testing plans this year. But Elia on Wednesday acknowledged this week’s problems would likely force a longer transition window.

“Every time we have an issue like this that certainly changes our projections of when (we can get computer testing statewide), clearly we’ve got some issues we’ve got to clear up,” Elia said.

Both Elia and Questar officials cited data that 93 percent of the over 93,000 students who started computer tests on Tuesday “successfully completed and submitted their tests that day,” but even some of those students may have experienced delays or other issues along the way.

Questar came under fire last year too after technical issues caused a similar cascade of anxiety-inducing delays in classrooms across the state.

New York State United Teachers, a statewide teachers union, on Tuesday relayed stories about classrooms struggling with the technical problems; Juliet Benaquisto, president of Schenectady’s teacher union, said third grade students at Keane Elementary were forced to wait for over an hour to get set up on the computer tests.

After Elia announced the computer tests would resume Thursday, the statewide union reiterated its call for halting the computer tests all together, saying similar guarantees that computer testing was ready to resume last year were proved wrong Tuesday.

“This week, we found out that assurance was hollow as testing quickly deteriorated into a chaotic, stressful situation for the entire school community,” the union said in a statement Wednesday evening. “A stop-gap corrective action plan is far from the significant overhauls that must be made to restore any semblance of trust in the state testing system.”

But Elia on Wednesday suggested ultimately the benefits of computer-based testing – quicker results and greater testing flexibility – will win out despite the technical challenges of getting there.

“New York is way behind a lot of other states in the country that have been doing computer-based testing for a long time,” Elia said on the call with reporters. “In the big picture, this is the 21st century, many students will be using technology as they move forward in life, it will be a reality for them.”

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