Back online

Two years after massive testing snafus, Tennessee will test more students online than ever

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Tennessee has been slow-walking its schools into online testing ever since a wholesale switch in 2016 went bust.

Now in its third year of the TNReady era, the state will test more students digitally this spring than ever before. And partly because of the decision to scale up gradually, leaders are promising that things will be different this time.

All high schoolers will test online when TNReady’s three-week testing window opens on Monday. And about 40 percent of districts have opted to go digital for at least some of their students in grades 5-8, too. (See which districts here.)

Next year, all of those middle grades will test online, while third- and fourth-graders will stick with paper-and-pencil tests.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen ordered the gradual transition last year after a statewide switch of every school failed miserably for TNReady’s debut, overloading the testing company’s computer servers and stopping the test in its tracks on the very first day. The failure eventually led to the cancellation of TNReady testing for grades 3-8 and the firing of North Carolina-based Measurement Inc. as Tennessee’s testing company.

"We know that regardless of how much preparation occurs, statewide testing is complex, with many moving parts."Candice McQueen, Tennessee education commissioner

State officials said Thursday they are confident the new digital platform will work under heavy traffic, even as their new testing vendor, Questar, had headaches administering computer-based tests in New York on Wednesday. Some students there struggled to log on and submit their exam responses — issues that Questar leaders blamed on a separate company providing the computer infrastructure that hosts the tests.

Sara Gast, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Education, said the problems that occurred in New York should not happen in Tennessee.

Tennessee’s testing platform, known as Nextera, is built on multiple servers in multiple locations, so backups are in place if needed, she said. That wasn’t the case on the first day of testing in 2016 when students logged on to find cursors spinning and the test failing to load, eventually prompting McQueen to scrap the online assessment.

There are other changes, too.

“Nextera does not require continuous connectivity to a wireless network in order for students to work through the test,” Gast said. “This means it automatically stores students’ progress throughout their experience and is not constantly ‘pinging’ the network.

Last spring, no significant hiccups occurred when 24 districts opted to test their high schoolers online. And last fall, high schoolers who are on non-traditional block schedules completed 120,000 online exams across 97 districts. In addition, students statewide have taken some 780,000 practice sessions this school year — not only allowing Questar and districts to fine-tune their technology but also helping students get comfortable with online testing and the types of questions they will see.

“We know that regardless of how much preparation occurs, statewide testing is complex, with many moving parts,” McQueen wrote to the state’s superintendents earlier this week.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks with reporters on Feb. 9, 2016, after technical problems halted the state’s new online assessment called TNReady.

Her three-page letter outlined her department’s strategy for providing “immediate support” if problems occur, including Questar’s call center, and daily webinars and text alerts for testing coordinators at individual schools.

“Questar will have support staff located strategically around the state so no district in Tennessee will be more than 90 minutes away from having on-the-ground assistance if needed,” said McQueen, adding that extra computer devices for testing can be loaned to any district that runs into problems.

TNReady is the state’s annual test to measure what students know and are able to do. It’s the lynchpin of Tennessee’s accountability system, with student growth scores incorporated into teacher evaluations and intervention strategies for low-performing schools.

Scores have been low since Tennessee switched to the new test and new academic standards, but state officials expect results to improve as students and educators become acclimated to both.

Malicious disruptions

Tennessee says its online testing was hacked. And it has happened in other states, too.

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As the vendor that administered Tennessee’s glitch-filled standardized testing last week blamed the problems on a cyberattack, lawmakers and students were left wondering how the system could have been hacked.

But attacks on online testing systems and school networks, in general, are relatively common, said Doug Levin, president of EdTech Strategies, a cybersecurity consulting firm in Arlington, Va.

The reported failure in the computer system used by Questar Assessment Inc., which administers the tests, was the latest crisis in a series of foul-ups that marred the start of TNReady testing across the state. Thousands of students were booted from the computer system, some couldn’t submit answers and others were blocked from logging on altogether.

Levin said, Questar was likely the victim of a denial-of-service attack, which can disrupt service and block access to the site rather than steal data. In such cases, a website is flooded with so many fake requests that it can’t respond to any of them.

Denial-of-service attacks are typically short and frequent, he said. So there may be disruptions for 20-30 minutes, then issues are seemingly resolved. When people return to business as usual an hour or so later, the system is attacked again.

The TNReady attack could have been carried out by students, educators, another testing vendor, or by someone making a political point about online testing or testing in general, Levin said. “It’s illegal of course, and highly risky and requires some technical sophistication, but if this is what I think it is, it is not a sophisticated attack.”

And it’s so common that it’s the sort of attack that should have been expected, Levin said. The hosting provider usually redirects traffic to other servers if an attack occurs.

“My question for Questar would be, if this indeed was a denial-of-service attack, what was the magnitude of the attack and did they have a plan in place to deal with it?”

Wayne Camara, chief researcher for test-maker ACT, said hacking into testing systems, versus school networks, is rarer in his experience.

“That’s pretty unusual because the kind of data in those computer-based systems is not usually of intrinsic value unless someone really wants to corrupt the system or embarass the testing program. There’s really no large motivation to do it,” he said.

A greater concern with computer-based testing in school districts, Camara said, is cheating. “Quite frankly because in most states the schools do not have enough equipment to test everybody on one date…you have a very long testing window.”

Questar officials are convinced its testing platform was attacked.  The chief operating officer, Brad Baumgartner, has said the attack was “external,” but the company has said little else. Questar has a $30 million annual contract with Tennessee’s Department of Education that expires this year.

Tennessee was one of seven states affected  by the attack, Baumgartner said. Tennessee, New York, Mississippi, Missouri, and South Dakota were the hardest hit.

“Our data systems did what they were supposed to do,” he told lawmakers grilling him this week about the situation. “They shut the system down.”

Officials have said no student information was compromised.

Because other states were also affected by the attack, Levin said it could mean that all those states’ data were sitting on the main server. “So one attack gets everything.”

There have been more than 300 cyber security incidents on schools across the country in the last two years, Levin said, targeting student records, teacher employment data, school websites and networks, as well as ransomware, and phishing attacks.

In 2015, Florida’s school testing system was hit by a series of attacks. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement found that the attacks were from outside the country, possibly China. Investigators closed the cases without identifying a suspect.

That same year, testing contractor Pearson reached a $5 million settlement with the state of Minnesota after a cyberattack sidelined student-testing there.

“There are so many pieces that have to go right for it to work,” Levin said of online testing.

The testing vendor needs servers that can handle large numbers of concurrent student testers logging in from the networks of hundreds of schools in dozens of school districts across the state. “Failures can happen anywhere in that spider web of connection,” he added.

It’s possible the attack could have been of a magnitude and sophistication that they couldn’t have foreseen it, Levin conceded. “I think that’s unlikely, but without additional information it’s hard to know.”

Though officials have asked the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to investigate the attack, because of jurisdictional issues, the matter may have to be handled by authorities in Minnesota, where Questar is headquartered.

Finding the culprit is likely to be challenging. Although politically embarrassing and massively disruptive, it’s not likely that a lot of resources will be used in the investigation, especially because lives or millions of dollars weren’t at stake. “Unless the perpetrator was pretty sloppy, it’s unlikely that the perpetrator will be found,” Levin said.

new rules

Now that TNReady scores will count less for students, will they even try?

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia

In the face of a statewide testing debacle, the Tennessee legislature’s hasty edict this week to discount test results has mollified some teachers and parents, but raised more questions about the role of test scores and further eroded the motivation of students, who must labor for about two more weeks on the much-maligned TNReady test.

Thursday’s sweeping measure to allow districts to ignore test results when grading students and to prohibit the use of test scores when determining teacher compensation has left educators and students shrugging their shoulders.

“I’ve gone from ‘oh well, tests are just a part of life’ to ‘this is an egregious waste of time and resources and does not respect the developmental needs of our children,’” said Shelby County parent Tracy O’Connor. For her four children, the testing chaos has “given them the idea that their school system is not particularly competent and the whole thing is a big joke.”

Her son, Alex O’Connor, was even more succinct. “We spend $30 million on tests that don’t work, but we can’t get new textbooks every year?” said the 10th-grader at Central High School. “What’s up with that? I’m sure half of us here could design a better test. It’s like buying a used car for the price of a Lamborghini.”

The legislature’s decision created a new challenge for Tennessee’s Department of Education, which planned to use 2018 TNReady testing data to rate and identify the lowest-performing schools, as required by the federal government. Now, with the test’s reliability under question, state officials say they are determining “additional guidance” to provide districts on how the state will comply with the U.S. Department of Education.

Student test results still will be used to generate a score for each teacher in the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, known as TVAAS. Scores will count for 20 percent of teachers’ evaluations, though districts now cannot use the scores for any decisions related to hiring, firing, or compensating teachers.

For students, local school boards will determine how much TNReady scores will count toward final grades — but only up to 15 percent. Several school districts have already expressed serious reservations about the testing data and likely won’t use them in students grades at all. And in previous years, the results didn’t come back in time for districts to incorporate them anyway.

In sum, asked Memphis sophomore Lou Davis, “Why are we doing this anymore when know it won’t count?”

About 650,000 students are supposed to take TNReady this year, with 300,000 of them testing online, according to the state. Each student takes multiple tests. As of Friday, more than  500,000 online tests sessions had been completed.

Even as testing continues, some education leaders worry the exam’s credibility is likely to sink even further, because students might not try, and parents and teachers may not encourage much effort.

“In the immediate term, there’s concern about how seriously people will take the test if they know it’s not going to count,” said Gini Pupo-Walker, head of the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition and a member of the state’s testing task force. “Will students continue to take the test? Will kids show up? Will parents send their kids to school?” she asked. “Now, there’s the whole question of validity.”

Sara Gast, spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said while the new legislation provides more flexibility for districts in how they use TNReady results, it doesn’t mean that the results don’t matter.

“The results always matter. They provide key feedback on how students are growing and what they are learning, and they provide a big-picture check on how well they are mastering our state academic expectations,” Gast said. “It serves as accountability for the millions of taxpayer dollars that are invested into public education each year.”

Jessica Fogarty, a Tullahoma school board member and parent, says she thinks this year’s testing issues could lead to more parents telling their kids to refuse state tests in the future.

A proponent of opting out of state tests, Fogarty said, “We need to understand that we can choose what our children do or do not suffer through. I hope this debacle showed parents what a waste of time this is — students would gain more through reading a book.”

Because Tennessee has no official opt-out policy, students wanting to opt out must “refuse the test” when their teacher hands it to them.

Jennifer Proseus, a parent of a student at Bartlett High School, said her daughter has opted out of state testing in the past, but started taking the exams this year because she believed it could affect her final grades.

“With college looming in a couple years, she couldn’t afford to get zeroes on her report cards,” Proseus said. But with the test debacle, her daughter might change her mind and just skip the remaining two weeks of testing.

“I even took the online practice TNReady a few years ago and it was terribly confusing to navigate,” Proseus said. “The testing in Tennessee is not transparent — it is almost like it is set up to trick and fail children — and that’s very cruel for a young child to deal with.”