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VOL. 42 | NO. 15 | Friday, April 13, 2018

Hacker blamed for 3rd TNReady computer snafu

By Sam Stockard

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Frustrated by a third year of TNReady foul-ups, this time with testing statewide disrupted by a suspected hacker, state lawmakers are set to step in and put an end to what they feel is a fiasco.

Two measures are slated to be considered by the House this afternoon to put an end to mistakes in the administration of tests used to evaluate student progress and teacher effectiveness. School districts statewide were affected by the disruption this week, including Metro Nashville Public Schools, after an outside source hit the state’s testing vendor, Questar.

One amendment to legislation by Rep. William Lamberth would prohibit online testing for TNReady by requiring a move to paper tests. The other, by Republican Rep. Jeremy Faison, would hold teachers harmless this year letting them decide whether they want test results to be used as part of their evaluations.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen sent school system directors statewide a letter this morning notifying them the data center of testing vendor Questar was hit with “a deliberate attack” that forced the company to reset the system.

“However, the attacker may take these same steps again, and Questar is actively working on further reinforcements, including notifying authorities,” McQueen’s first letter issued around 9:45 a.m. stated.

The commissioner’s first letter tells administrators to continue testing but to pause a test when a student finishes and store the test on that “specific device.” The software is designed to save students’ work, and if their session is disrupted they can start again later and submit answers, she says.

“To our knowledge, no student data has been compromised,” McQueen’s letter notes.

Around 11:45, McQueen issued a third letter to directors telling them testing resumed and Questar continues to take steps to prevent another attack.

“Questar has blocked the source of the unusual traffic patterns, and they continue to implement ways to prevent a recurrence,” her letter states.

McQueen notes the department wants to “persevere” with online testing but understands the problems “presented challenges to scheduling and morale.”

Rutherford County Schools spokesman James Evans said the Questar system was operating well until 8:55 a.m. when schools started reporting issues such as students being unable to log in or being logged off. Still, students continued testing until they were finished and the results were saved to their local computers.

“We are waiting to learn more information from the Tennessee Department of Education about how we should move forward from here,” Evans said.

Metro Nashville Public Schools responded by letting families know testing in grades 3-8 would continue with paper tests after the problems surfaced.

“Those most impacted are high school students taking end-of-course exams and middle school students who are taking high school courses for credit. Some students have been able to access the tests today and those who have will continue testing,” system spokeswoman Michelle Michaud said in a statement.

Lamberth, a Portland Republican, said he started receiving reports from teachers and parents in his district Monday about students unable to log on to the TNReady computer system to take their tests.

The state has been preparing for the TNReady for four years and been through two vendors but still continues to suffer problems, Lamberth says, pointing out test scores weren’t used to evaluate teachers last year because of snafus.

“Here we are again this year and students are not able to log on, and really the straw that broke the camel’s back is I have heard from a number of parents today that have spoken to their children and when they finished writing an essay and spent about an hour and went to submit the results, it crashed, erasing all of their hard work. That’s a system that’s not working for our children and our students, and that’s unacceptable to me,” Lamberth says.

His amendment would simply require the state to go to paper testing.

Lamberth wasn’t certain about online hacking and said that wouldn’t change his “resolve” either way that computerized testing isn’t working. He felt confident the state could roll out a paper test “between now and next year that will truly evaluate and fairly allow these children to show the hard work they’ve put in.”

Government Operations Committee Chairman Faison, whose legislation would let teachers decide whether they want student test scores to count toward evaluation, said he will meet Wednesday with Reps. Harry Brooks and John Forgety, chairs of House Education committees, and talk to Questar officials to find out what happened.

Faison, an East Tennessee Republican, said he believes Questar’s firewall might have failed to stop a hacker.

“It’s disheartening. Most importantly, it hurts our students,” Faison said. “I’ve got students at home that have been geared up to take this test. The teacher’s done everything they can to get them pumped up to take the test. The teachers have been psyching them up, and now it didn’t happen.”

Though Lamberth said the legislation would be considered today on the House floor, Faison said it will likely be postponed until a joint meeting Wednesday between House Education committees and the Government Operations Committee.

Faison has been raising questions about the administration of TNReady for months.

Some 9,400 TNReady tests had inaccurate scores in 2017, just one year after the online rollout of the test flopped, forcing the state to go back to pencil and paper and then cancel tests for younger children because the former vendor didn’t have enough copies of the test.

The Department of Education shifted to Questar in 2017, giving it a $60 million, two-year contract. But that wasn’t fool-proof, either, legislators point out.

During a 2017 Government Operations Committee hearing, legislators asked Department of Education Commissioner Candice McQueen to go through a full testing cycle without mistakes before making it count on teacher evaluations and student grade-point averages.

Principals and teacher acknowledge the test gives them important information for figuring out how to place teachers in classrooms and where children need to improve. But they want consistency after years of change, and, most importantly, they say they want the test to work.

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Nashville Ledger and Memphis Daily News. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.