Despite blistering audit, Questar will pursue Tennessee’s next testing contract, says leader

The company that oversaw Tennessee’s glitch-ridden student testing program last spring plans to pursue a new state contract to continue the job in the fall, despite a searing audit that blames the firm for most of the online problems.

Officials with Questar Assessment Inc. acknowledged failures in administering the testing program known as TNReady, but added that “we have learned a lot in two years.”

“I understand we have some mending to do, and we hope to be afforded the opportunity to do that,” Chief Operating Officer Brad Baumgartner told Chalkbeat on Thursday.

Earlier in the day, the Minneapolis-based company issued its response to an audit of TNReady released last month by the state’s chief internal investigator. Comptroller Justin P. Wilson reported that, while there was plenty of blame to go around including the state education department and even Tennessee legislators, Questar was mostly at fault for technical snafus that exasperated students and educators and prompted the state to dock the company almost $4 million from its $30 million annual contract.

“While Questar does not agree with several of the Tennessee comptroller’s findings, we appreciate the thorough nature of the audit and inclusion in the process,” the company said in its statement.

Among findings that merit further explanation, according to Questar, is the conclusion that the company failed to staff its customer support center sufficiently, resulting in long wait times and high rates of abandoned calls when testing problems emerged.

Baumgartner said the bigger shortcoming was not having a communication plan in place to keep customers informed about widespread slowdowns and outages — a void that he says has been corrected.

“I would liken what happened in the spring to a massive snowstorm in the Northeast and folks are trying to contact an airline’s support line and not being able to get through,” he said. “You generally don’t staff for the possibility of something of that magnitude.”

The company also weighed in on the comptroller’s finding that there was no cyber attack on the second day of testing problems.

“Questar has always held the position that the pattern of data discovered during spring TNReady administration was consistent with what could have been an attack,” Baumgartner said. “But we did not at any time indicate that a cyberattack was certain.”

Tennessee is preparing to invite proposals from testing companies to take over TNReady beginning next school year. To increase their chances of continuing the work, Questar officials are counting on overseeing a successful administration this spring.

The state reported that the administration of more than 72,000 online tests went smoothly last fall. But the real test will come when most high schoolers take their end-of-year exams by computer, while younger students test on paper.