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NYS Says Student Testing Will Resume After Computer Glitch

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State education officials ordered the cancellation of computerized testing for New York’s third through eighth grade students on Wednesday, after a testing software glitch prevented some students from being able to complete, and in some cases, even begin the tests. But they say they will be able to restart the tests on Thursday.

The English and math exams are required under federal law. The State Education Department has contracted with the testing company Questar to administer the exams and around 25 percent of students take the tests online.

Jolene DiBrango, vice president of the teachers union, New York State United Teachers, says when testing began on Tuesday, the union heard from schools that there were some major glitches in the testing software.

Some students could not log in. Others were unable to submit their answers, and some may have to repeat the exams.

“We had reports all over the state that there were students who finished their tests and then had to sit for forty minutes, students who had to sit for two and a half hours,” DiBrango said. “Trying to submit their answers.”

DiBrango says it was an upsetting day for the teachers and the children, some of whom are as young as eight years-old.  

“When you think about eight and nine-year-olds having to go through this, your heart breaks for them,” DiBrango said. “They’re too little to understand that they may actually have to do this all over again. And we don’t want that for any child.”

DiBrango says it’s the second year in a row that there have been problems with the software used for the testing.  And in 2017, some of the personal data of users was exposed in a data breach.

State Education commissioner MaryEllen Elia suspended testing for a day, but she says some of the grades can now resume the tests on Thursday. She says her agency worked with technicians from Questar for 30 hours, and she called in ETS, the parent company of Questar, and Microsoft Professional Services, to verify that Questar has actually fixed the problem. Elia, in a conference call with reporters, says there are “no excuses” for the failure.

“I certainly do not in any way want to downplay what happened here,” said Elia. “We’re very upset about it.”

Questar says their system did not have enough “free memory” to accommodate all of the students across the state who were trying to access the test.

Elia says Questar will be made to pay for its mistakes. The company’s contract runs out in 2020. And Elia says it’s “absolutely” a possibility that the education department could cancel the contract early.

“Make no mistake, Questar will be held accountable,” Elia said.

Questar sent WAMC News the following statement Wednesday afternoon: “We understand the frustration, and our team has been working around the clock to ensure New York schools can resume computer-based testing as soon as possible. We have consulted with respected outside firms and have wasted no time implementing their recommendations. As such, testing will resume Thursday. Of the 93,100 total students who started tests on Tuesday, 93 percent of, or 86,500, students who started testing sessions successfully completed and submitted their tests that day. Questar Assessment Inc. is committed to the students, teachers and school districts of New York State, and we take our responsibility to provide accurate and insightful testing results seriously.”

Elia says no students will be asked to take the test again.

Schools will also be allowed to switch back to the paper tests. 

DiBrango, with the teachers union, says her group says even though the computer glitch has now been fixed, her group is still asking for a  pause in the testing roll out, until larger issues with the exams can be fixed. She says the exam content does not always match with the grade level of the students. And she says the benchmarks used to determine whether the student is proficient in a subject are faulty.  

For instance she says, just 22 percent of students who took the eighth grade math tests statewide were deemed to be proficient in the subject. Yet the very next year, 70 percent of those same students passed the New York State administered Regents test for ninth grade algebra.

“How can you have that kind of jump in one year?” she asked. 

Commissioner Elia says the nine-day testing period has been expanded one day, through April 12. She says there have not been any problems with the three quarters of students who take the test the old fashioned way, using pencil and paper. But she says in the 21st century, going back to that type of system is not the answer.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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