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State education leader says testing will resume after computer glitch

New York State Education Building
New York State Education Building

State education officials canceled computerized testing for New York’s third- through eighth-grade students on Wednesday after a software glitch prevented some students from being able to complete -- and in some cases, even begin -- the tests.

But they said they’ll 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 about 25% of students take the tests online.

Jolene DiBrango, vice president of New York State United Teachers, said 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.

“We had reports all over the state that there were students who finished their tests and then had to sit for 40 minutes, students who had to sit for two-and-a-half hours,” DiBrango said. “Trying to submit their answers.”

DiBrango said it was an upsetting day for the teachers and the children, some of whom are as young as 8 years old.  

“When you think about 8- and 9-year-olds having to go through this, your heart breaks for them,” DiBrango said. “They’re sitting there, doing the very best that they can, trying as hard as they can.”

She said 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 said some of the grades can resume the tests on Thursday. She said her agency worked with technicians from Questar for 30 hours. She also called in ETS, Questar’s parent company, and Microsoft Professional Services to verify that Questar actually fixed the problem.

Elia, in a conference call with reporters, said there are “no excuses” for the failure.

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

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

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

She said no students will be asked to take the test again. Schools also will be allowed to switch back to the paper tests.

DiBrango, with New York State United Teachers, said even though the computer glitch has now been fixed, her union is still asking for a pause in the testing rollout until larger issues with the exams can be corrected. She said the exam content does not always match the grade level of the students and believes the benchmarks used to determine whether the student is proficient in a subject are faulty.    

For instance, she said, just 22% of students who took the eighth-grade math tests statewide were deemed proficient in the subject. Yet the next year, 70% 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. 

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

Brad Baumgartner, chief operating officer of Questar, released this statement about the computer woes on Wednesday:

"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."

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.