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Computer-based chaos: Major computer problems reported in state testing

Computer-based chaos: Major computer problems reported in state testing

Company also came under fire for breach of information earlier this year.
Computer-based chaos: Major computer problems reported in state testing
Photographer: Shutterstock

Computer testing around the state, including in a handful of Capital Region districts, went off the rails Wednesday as problems sourced to the state's testing vendor kept some students from logging into or finishing their English Language Arts tests.

Delays, false-starts and problems submitting answers threw a wrench into the annual exams -- just as the state rolled out a computerized upgrade it hopes to expand to all students by 2021. In some districts, just a fraction of students were able to start the tests at all; in other districts, problems persisted as officials tried to upload finished tests; and across the state, teachers reported "system crashes, log-in failures and nonsensical answers," according to a state teachers union.

"In my mind, we've had a test that's had a breach of security statewide... Are the results really going to be valid results?" said Karen Swain, Scotia-Glenville assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. "In my mind, this is no longer a standardized testing situation."

In Scotia-Glenville schools, where the first day of computer testing Tuesday went off as planned, the problems started almost immediately as they attempted to test fourth graders districtwide on computers. Administrators were unable to access an admin portal, and students weren't capable of logging in to their test page. For over an hour, administrators and teachers struggled to make the tests work. 

Swain said she went as far as reporting a security breach - on herself. The tests are supposed to be delivered to an entire grade at a time - so that students aren't waiting to take a test that their friends down the street may have already taken - but on Wednesday just one of Scotia-Glenville's four elementary schools, Lincoln Elementary, was able to get in and take the tests. The other three schools will try again Thursday, Swain said.

By 10:15 a.m., after nearly 90 minutes of trying to get the tests up and running, and working to keep students calm and engaged, Swain decided to call it for the day and resume regular classwork. She said the students, who were given small tasks to keep them busy while the adults worked to get the tests going, were patient as the technical difficulties disrupted their morning.

"'Boy, we're real problem solvers today,'" one of the fourth graders told Swain.

Technical problems were also reported in Shenendehowa, Mohonasen, Schenectady, Cobleskill-Richmondville, Wheelerville on Wednesday. Even if the schools and students unable to finish tests Wednesday resume testing without problems on Thursday, the statewide glitch is sure to raise questions about the state and its testing vendor's preparedness for expanding computer testing to more and more students in the coming years.   

"It's clear there are some technology and infrastructure issues that will need to be further developed before this goes statewide," said Cobleskill-Richmondville Superintendent Carl Mummenthey. He said two out of the district's six fourth-grade classes - about 40 students - were unable to login to take the tests Wednesday. They will try again Thursday.

Mummenthey said the first-year kinks were worst than he had expected - though he said the district's internal plans worked out - but that he still thinks computer testing is the direction schools are headed in.

"It is going to be the future of testing in New York, and we will be patient as they work through and troubleshoot some of these issues," he said. "If Amazon can stay online during the holidays, we should be able to test grades three through eight in New York."

Mumenthey, Swain and other local administrators said computer testing went as planned on Tuesday - the first day of annual testing of students in third through eighth grades - but that the problems started almost immediately Wednesday morning. 

Around 60 students at Draper Middle School in Mohonasen School District were unable to take the tests as scheduled, according to a letter posted on the district's website. Pinewood Elementary students experienced delays of up to 40 minutes before they were able to get their testing underway. Shenendehowa promised to make accommodations for students unable to finish their tests Wednesday. Wheelerville Superintendent Richard Ruberti said the district experienced some delays in submitting test results Wednesday morning. He said the issue was resolved for all but one student.

The state's major teachers union, New York State United Teachers, in a statement that called Wednesday a "computer testing disaster" and said that "widespread technology failures raise serious questions about the speed - and wisdom - of the state Education Department's rush into computer-based testing."

In Yonkers, according to the union statement, students were presented with multiple choice questions where all the answers were the same: "System error."

Delays were blamed on the company hired to develop and deliver the state's annual English and math tests, Questar Assessment, according to a statement from the state Education Department on Wednesday. Questar Assessment did not immediately return a request for comment Wednesday evening.

In a statement, department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis said Questar "experienced delays in the delivery of computer-based tests to students in some schools across the state" and that the company "resolved the matter as quickly as possible with the delay times varying."

Across the state, 291 districts participated in computer-based testing this week - a big increase after a small group of districts were the first to adopt computer testing last year. Around 15 districts in the Capital Region, including Schenectady, Ballston Spa, Saratoga Springs, Mohonasen and Scotia-Glenville, are administering at least a portion of the tests on computers this week, according to the state Education Department.

DeSantis said state officials reminded districts that there was flexibility built into the testing schedule and that they could postpone testing as needed but that "testing will continue." DeSantis also said Questar reported that nearly 50,000 students were able to complete computer-based tests on Wednesday.

"We thank the districts for partnering with us on the phased and thoughtful implementation of computer-based testing," DeSantis said in the statement.

Some advocacy groups that point to annual testing as key indicators of student progress and achievement, as well a tool for indetifiying disparities among student groups, released statements Wednesday afternoon arguing it was important not to overreact to the day's computer issues.

"Most importantly, we hope that opponents do not use this as an excuse to attack the state assessments, which are essential to improving equity and supporting all students," said Ian Rosenblum, executive director of Education Trust-New York. He said he trusted the Education Department would hold Questar accountable and resolve the computer problems.

Questar also came under fire in January after reporting that student testing data in a handful of districts had been breached; the company told state officials they believed a former employee improperly viewed the student data. In February, after details of the breach emerged, NYSUT submitted a letter to the Board of Regents and Education Department, raising a litany of concerns over computer testing.

"The recent testing data break offers an opportunity to thoroughly review computer based testing and its impact on students," NYSUT Executive Vice President Jolene DiBrango wrote in the letter. On Wednesday, DiBrango reiterated the concerns and added a message to state official on behalf of teachers: "SED must slow down and get it right."

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