Chicago Public Schools pauses High School Admissions Test amid technical problems

The facade of Chicago Public Schools headquarters, with the district’s sign hanging on the wall behind windows with green silhouettes of students.
The facade of Chicago Public Schools headquarters. On Wednesday, officials paused the administration of the High School Admissions Test due to a technical problem. (Mauricio Peña / Chalkbeat)

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Chicago Public Schools paused the High School Admissions Test that was underway Wednesday morning due to technical problems on the testing platform, officials told principals. 

“For any students currently testing successfully, they can continue and complete,” Peter Leonard, executive director of student assessment for CPS, wrote in an email to principals. “In any other case, schools should stop testing today.”

Students take the HSAT as part of admissions requirements for the city’s selective-enrollment high schools and to enroll at some schools outside of their neighborhood boundaries. On Wednesday all eighth graders were set to take the exam on computers in school. This year’s exam was set to last an hour instead of the previous 2½ hours. CPS made the change in order to “reduce anxiety for students” and increase accessibility, a spokesperson said last month. 

In his note, Leonard said students who finish the test today can use their scores as they apply for high schools in GoCPS. For students who couldn’t finish, the district will share alternative testing dates “as soon as possible,” Leonard wrote. 

District spokesperson Samantha Hart said in a statement that the district is working with the testing vendor to resolve the technical problems. They don’t expect any changes to this weekend’s scheduled HSAT testing for non-CPS students, Hart said. 

“We recognize the stress many students and families experience when it comes to admissions testing,” Hart wrote.

The district authorized a $1.2 million no-bid contract over the summer with Riverside Assessments LLC to provide test materials for high school admissions and other placements, including gifted programs. 

At one North Side school, students received error messages as they tried to log in to the testing platform, even after refreshing the page, according to an administrator at the school, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press. The school’s testing coordinator tried to call a help desk for the testing vendor but got a busy signal. 

Similar problems cropped up at Brentano Elementary Math and Science Academy in Logan Square, said the school’s principal, Seth Lavin.

“They came in anxious and focused, and then they sat down, and for about an hour and a half, proctors tried to log kids into the test and they could not — and nobody knew what was going on,” Lavin said. 

By the time CPS notified schools at 10:30 a.m. that it would pause the test, a handful of students were able to complete the exam at both Brentano and the North Side school. 

Other students at the North Side school were finally able to log in by that time, the administrator said. But there were other issues. Some students saw words in Spanish pop up and had to ask teachers to translate, the administrator said. This is the first year the test is being offered in Spanish, Arabic, Mandarin, Urdu, and Polish.

The North Side administrator called the glitches a “gross oversight” by the district, and said that it should have ensured that the system could handle tens of thousands of students taking the exam on the same day. CPS enrolled nearly 24,000 eighth graders this year, district data shows. 

The administrator said all students — not just those who weren’t able to complete the exam — should be allowed to retake the test, since the process was so stressful. Students were already “very anxious” about the HSAT, this person said. 

Asked about the testing issues at an unrelated press conference Wednesday, Mayor Brandon Johnson said the public school system should “not reject the hopes and aspirations and desires” of families — Black families, in particular.

“The ultimate desire is to actually build a school system that no matter where you are in the city of Chicago, that you have access to a high quality education,” he said. “I’m committed to doing just that.”

Lavin, who has criticized the district’s selective-enrollment system for being inequitable, said Wednesday’s problems underscore that the admissions system “is so fragile and arbitrary.” The exam accounts for 50% of the admissions rubric for selective-enrollment high schools. 

“Kids who are 13 years old should not have a 60-minute experience that decides so much about the next four years of their life,” Lavin said. 

He added, “If we are going to let some kids into some high schools and not let some kids into some high schools, we have to find a better way to do it than this.” 

Reema Amin is a reporter covering Chicago Public Schools. Contact Reema at ramin@chalkbeat.org.

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