Computer-based state testing to resume in New York but concerns about glitches remain

Computer-based testing will resume Thursday for fifth- and eighth-grade New York students after glitches caused headaches at schools administering the state’s electronic language arts exams — the second consecutive year problems cropped up during assessment season for the test’s vendor.

Tuesday’s problems prevented some students from logging into the system or submitting a completed test. After reviewing the issue, Questar Assessment, Inc.— which develops New York’s third-through-eighth grade reading and math exams — found that its database servers ran out of memory as tens of thousands of students tried to log onto its platform at roughly the same time, said State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia on Wednesday during a conference call with reporters.

Elia and Questar noted that of the 93,100 students who started their computer-based tests on Tuesday, 86,500 were able to complete them. Questar said its team has been “working around the clock” to fix the problem. 

Just 25 New York City schools opted to use computer-based testing this year, and nine of them started testing on Tuesday, according to the city’s education department.

“We have consulted with respected outside firms and have wasted no time implementing their recommendations,” said Brad Baumgartner, Questar’s chief operating officer, in a statement.

Elia said that upon her request, Microsoft and Educational Testing Service, or ETS, Questar’s parent company, confirmed Questar’s diagnosis and its solution.

Tuesday’s problems sparked anger from some educator groups, including the state teachers union, which supports parents being given a choice to opt their children out of state assessments and is calling for overhauls “to restore any semblance of trust in the state testing system.”

“Computer-based testing must be halted, and not only should Questar be held accountable for this debacle, the state must be as well,” the New York State United Teachers said in a statement.

Questar has worked since Tuesday to “increase the functionality” of its system to accommodate the “high volume” of students who are taking the test.

Schools where fifth and eighth-grade students were able to complete their tests can begin testing in one other grade Thursday and Friday, Elia said. State education officials said they will announce next week’s testing schedule on Thursday.

Questar also reported problems with testing last spring. And last January, the personal information of 52 New York students who had taken computer-based tests was compromised.

“First let me say there is no excuse for the difficulties experienced by schools administering computer-based testing,” Elia said. “We are holding Questar accountable for its failure to deliver the services required in our contract with them.”

The state will hold Questar financially responsible, Elia said,  for any costs that districts shouldered because of Tuesday’s problems. But she added that the state is not currently considering severing its $44.8 million contract with Questar — in large part because paper-based tests, which most schools still use, are rolled into that same agreement. The contract runs through the end of November 2020.

She also said that the state will continue to pursue its plan to roll out computer-based testing across the state, but that “clearly we have some issues that we have to clear up.”