test stress

Personal data of 52 New York students is compromised after testing-company breach

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN

More than 50 students across New York had their personal information compromised in a recent data breach, state education officials said Thursday, blaming the incident on a private testing vendor that has recently come under fire in other states for testing mishaps.

The vendor, Questar Assessment, Inc., suspects that a former employee illicitly accessed the names, student-identification numbers, schools, grade levels, and teachers of at least 52 students who took state tests on computers last spring, according to state education department officials. The breach occurred between Dec. 30 and Jan. 2, though Questar first notified the state on Tuesday, officials said.

The breach is likely to fuel the already widespread opposition among New York parents and educators to the state’s standardized tests, which nearly one in five students refused to take last year. In addition to criticisms about the content of the exams and how the results are used, some testing critics have raised concerns about whether private test-providers are able to safeguard students’ personal data.

The flub may also complicate the state’s drawn-out transition to computer-based tests, which are currently only used in a small number of schools.

In a conference call with reporters Thursday, State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said the department had asked the state attorney general to investigate the matter and ordered Questar to take “immediate corrective action.” She noted that only a fraction of the roughly 88,000 students who took computer-based tests last year were affected, but said that is still unacceptable.

“Any data breach is unacceptable,” she said, “particularly when we’re talking about children’s information.”  

The affected students attend five schools across the state. In New York City school, 10 students had their information compromised. The students attend P.S. 15 Jackie Robinson in Queens, and took trial exams on computers this spring, not the actual state test, according to the city department of education.

New York hired Questar in part to quell testing anxiety after the state’s former test vendor, Pearson, made a series of missteps that inflamed the grassroots backlash against the state tests. Questar’s roughly $44 million contract runs through 2020 and requires the company to develop computer-based exams, in addition to paper tests.

The setback also threatens to make the switch to computer-based testing more arduous. While only 28,000 took last year’s state exams on computers (and another 60,000 took computer-based trial tests), the state hopes to eventually move all students to computer-based testing. The state has pushed back the transition for years, and on Thursday officials said they still do not have a “firm time frame.”

The data breach is just the latest testing flub involving Questar.

Last year, roughly 9,400 Tennessee students received incorrect test scores due to a glitch in Questar’s test-scanning program. And in Missouri, the state education department threatened legal action against Questar after a design problem with its exams meant that they could not be used to evaluate districts or compare student performance across the state, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

In New York, Questar notified state education department officials of the breach Tuesday afternoon, about two weeks after it occured. The officials immediately asked for more information and Commissioner Elia personally called Questar’s president, Steve Lazer, that evening, state officials said. However, the company did not provide the state with the names of affected students and schools until Thursday afternoon.

Officials on Thursday said they were in the process of notifying impacted schools and families.

The department is also forcing Questar to take a series of actions, including resetting the passwords of all user accounts, hiring an outside group to audit the company’s security protocols, and submitting a “corrective action plan” to the department that list the actions Questar has taken since the breach.

“Families deserve to know that their children’s information is safe,” said Amy Spitalnick, a spokeswoman for New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, adding that the office had opened an investigation into the breach.

A Questar representative said late Thursday that the company was preparing a written statement, but none was available at that time.

pencils down

Three things to watch as the release of New York’s test scores draws near

PHOTO: Getty Images

New York’s English and math scores are scheduled to be released this week — at long last. Compared to prior years, the state has delayed their release by a month.

But when the scores arrive, they will come with a big asterisk.

This year, as in the past, the numbers will not be directly comparable to the previous year because of changes to the test itself. Under pressure from teachers, students, and parents who argued that classrooms are too focused on preparing for the exams, the state shortened the tests from three days to two — which means this year’s scores will not allow for an apples-to-apples comparison, state officials said.

By contrast, last year was one of the rare instances in the last decade when the tests did not change, allowing observers to identify trends. New York City posted small gains in reading and math, narrowing the gap with the rest of the state. But with a new test, determining if this pattern has continued will be hard to judge. Here are some questions we’ll be asking as this year’s scores come out.

If the tests aren’t comparable, can they tell us whether students or schools are improving?

The short answer, according to Teachers College professor Aaron Pallas, is not really.

State officials will continue to report the share of students who are considered proficient in reading and math, as in previous years. But because the way the exam is scored must change to account for shorter tests, it will be difficult to know whether the tests reflect real changes in student learning.

If scores improve, “Does that mean they did better, or is that an artifact of the changes in testing?” Pallas said. “The state is probably not going to be able to answer that this week.”

That means it will be difficult to use the scores as an overall barometer of the health of the city’s school system and to see what impact some Mayor Bill de Blasio’s biggest education initiatives are having (or not). This lack of clarity will be especially evident, for example, when trying to gauge improvements among schools in the city’s $750 million Renewal turnaround initiative. The city is making final decisions about the 50 schools that remain in the program this school year.

Still, it’s possible city officials will seize on the results if they show gains. When scores rocketed up 8 points in English and one point in math in 2016, de Blasio said the improvements were “pure hard evidence” that his policies were paying off — even as state officials said the scores, when judged against the previous year, were also not an “apples-to-apples” comparison.

How strong is the opt-out movement?

In recent years, roughly one in five students have opted out of the state tests in protest. But in New York City, that percentage has historically been much smaller: just 4 percent of students sat out at least one exam last year, a slight increase from the year before.

Still, the opt-out rate serves as something of a bellwether of attitudes toward state education policy. The movement grew in response to a series of reform initiatives, including a law that became controversial because one of its provisions tied state test scores to teacher evaluations, an element that is currently on hold, and in reaction to the adoption of the Common Core learning standards. After the state rolled out new tests aligned with the standards, scores plummeted.

This year, partly in response to parent opposition to testing, state officials have taken steps to lessen its role (and the time testing takes) in schools. Under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which gives states more leeway than they enjoyed under No Child Left Behind, New York policymakers have shifted some of the focus from standardized exams to other metrics such as chronic absenteeism and have introduced interventions, generally seen as less harsh, at the lowest-performing schools.

Will these changes temper some of the fury that prompted the opt-out movement in the first place? So far it’s unclear. But officials said the opt-out numbers will be released alongside the annual test scores.

What about test-score gaps among different groups of students?

Richard Carranza has repeatedly talked about some of the structural and historical  disadvantages found in the nation’s largest school system since taking its helm, and if history is any guide, this year’s test scores will continue to demonstrate these inequities.

Black and Hispanic students have historically performed far below their white peers, a divide that did not narrow significantly last year. We’ll also be on the lookout for trends among English learners and students with disabilities.

But once again, because of changes to the test, how these disparities are narrowing (or widening) over time may not be clear. Nor will there be a full sense of whether the scores reflect the city’s “Equity and Excellence” agenda, which is largely designed to give schools extra resources, but has drawn criticism for not tackling systemic disparities.

State officials said that the tests should now remain the same for the next two years, meaning this year could serve as a baseline to measure Carranza’s new approach— including his promise to address school segregation — even if the verdict this year remains murky.

listening tour

These parents won’t stop chipping away at literacy and the language barrier in Detroit schools

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Parent groups have already demanded that the Detroit district hire more bilingual staffers. On Tuesday, it was clear that the same problems exist at charter schools.

If you think it’s hard to navigate Detroit’s troubled school system, try doing it when no one speaks your language.

The latest stop on Chalkbeat Detroit’s listening tour took a parent’s-eye-view of the obstacles facing English language learners, who graduate from high school at lower rates than their English-speaking peers.

One observation: The parents, who play a key role in helping children learn to read, face plenty of obstacles themselves, especially when it comes to communicating across a language barrier.

“You feel that you don’t have value,” said Gloria Vera, describing her interactions with English-speaking school staff. “You feel that you have fewer chances to ask questions. It scares me.”

Several mothers worried about the effects of Michigan’s “read-or-flunk” law, which will hold back third-graders if they aren’t reading on grade level by the end of next year. By one count, 70 percent of English learners in the state could be forced to repeat a grade.

One mom said she wanted to help her daughter learn to read, but worried her English skills were too limited.

Another, Delia Barba, suspects that her daughter has a learning disability, but says her school in mostly Spanish-speaking Southwest Detroit has been slow to investigate because of the language barrier.

Like virtually every parent present, Barba said a few more bilingual staffers would go a long way.

“We don’t know who to talk to,” Barba said, speaking in Spanish. “They don’t speak Spanish.”

At each stop on Chalkbeat Detroit’s listening tour, parents take center stage to tell us the stories we should be covering. (See the results of our last stop here.) This time around, Chalkbeat joined with organizations that work with Detroit parents to hear  from dozens of mostly Spanish-speaking mothers. They traveled through a Tuesday morning rainstorm to the headquarters of Brilliant Detroit, a nonprofit that provides social services like literacy training to families around Detroit.

Some of the parents on hand had already worked with neighborhood organizations like Congress of Communities and the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation to push leaders of Detroit’s main district to provide more access to Spanish-speaking parents, noting their concerns have been brushed off by previous administrations.

“Community residents feel frustrated in 2018, because they have expressed the need for language access repeatedly over the years and a resolution is continually brushed aside,” said Elizabeth Rojas, a community advocate and parent in the district.

round table 2
PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Parents traveled to the headquarters of Brilliant Detroit through a rainstorm Tuesday morning to share their experiences with Detroit schools.

At a meeting last month, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti agreed to establish a Spanish hotline and ensure that every school with Spanish-speaking children has someone in the office who speaks Spanish, among other promises.

After surveying  families in the neighborhood, parents are turning their attention to the issue of safety in schools. They’re hoping that schools will hire more bilingual security guards, and that undocumented parents will be allowed to enter school buildings with an alternative form of ID, such as a Mexican passport, a state ID, or even an ID issued by the district itself.

Parents on hand Tuesday reported similar access issues at charter schools in Southwest Detroit. Angelina Romero, who arrived with her family from Mexico within the last two years, worried that her first-grade son wasn’t picking up English at a neighborhood charter school, and that she had trouble communicating with his teacher.

“I’m hoping that the families who came here realize that it’s not just parents at their school that are concerned and active on this issue,” said Jametta Lilly, CEO of the Detroit Parent Network, which co-sponsored the listening session with Chalkbeat.

For Gloria Vera, the language barrier added to the challenge of navigating a broken special education system. After her daughter was diagnosed with autism, officials at a local school told her they didn’t have enough space.

“They told me, no you can’t enroll your child here,” Vera said, speaking in Spanish.

Staff at the school gave her a phone number to call — presumably to the district’s enrollment center — but Vera worried that it wouldn’t do her any good.

“I didn’t know English,” she said. “I felt lost.”

Looming over the conversation was Michigan’s third-grade reading law, which lends a sense of urgency to the already daunting challenge of helping a child read in a second language.

Yesenia Hernandez said she reads to her second-grade daughter in English, but worries that she can’t pronounce words correctly. In these moments, she said in Spanish, it seems that “she’s learning, but I’m just confusing her.”

Working with a group of five other mothers, Hernandez listed out the ways her school could help her to help her daughter. In another  room, other small groups worked on wish lists of their own, and when they compared results, there were striking similarities: The parents wanted to communicate with their children’s schools in Spanish, and they wanted the tools — like classes in English for adults — to help their children learn. One group gave an approving nod to the “parent room” at Priest Elementary-Middle School, where Spanish-speaking parents gather and share information and resources.

wall list
PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Parents broke off into small groups to discuss their English language learners’ educations.

Even as they hurry to help their children build reading skills, parents are uncertain about how their children might react to flunking a grade when the state’s high stakes reading requirements go into effect next school year.

Delia Barba thought the policy made sense: “What if they keep saying pass, pass, pass, and he doesn’t know how to read?” she asked.

But Gloria Vera wasn’t so sure. In her neighborhood, an estimated 8 in 10 students spoke some Spanish at home. How many would be held back?

“In this part of Detroit, there should be a solution,” she said.