A potential cyber-attack brought online TNReady state assessment testing to a crashing halt earlier this week, keeping thousands of students from completing their state-mandated assessments, according to state education officials.
High school students taking the English I, II and III tests and the U.S. history exams were either unable to log in to the test website or were logged in but unable to submit their exams.
This is the third year in a row that the state has experienced some kind of problem with the state assessments, according to school officials. During the 2015-2016 school year, repeated technical failures with online testing caused all the testing for grades three through eight to be suspended.
The vendor for that year, Measurement, Inc., had its five-year, $108 million contract cancelled due to the massive failures, and the Tennessee Department of Education switched to a new vendor, Questar, to carry out the testing from then on.
But Questar’s leadership has not been without problems in the first two years of its $30 million annual contract.
In the 2016-2017 school year, it was reported that about 10,000 of the state’s tests were scored incorrectly.
This year, the company has said it was the victim of a possible cyber-attack, which caused the online testing system to shut down, preventing thousands of students from taking their tests.
Tullahoma City Schools students were among those who had trouble with online testing, according to school officials.
Director of Schools Dan Lawson announced that testing for Monday and Tuesday had been suspended after the district became aware of the issues with the English and history tests.
According to Director of Curriculum Susan Fanning, 697 high school students were scheduled to take the tests for those subjects, but only 18 percent of those students fully completed the exams.
Nearly half of those 697 students – 46 percent – had not started their tests at all, she said.
Another 18 percent had exams that were “in progress, looks complete – not submitted” and 18 percent more were “in progress, not complete or submitted,” according to Fanning.
As of Wednesday afternoon, Fanning said there were people at the high school trying to “figure out this total mess from yesterday and identify [the] next steps.”
There were also reported issues with the paper-and-pencil exams, according to Fanning. She said there was great confusion regarding the instructions test proctors received, and in some of the math tests there were errors in the questions themselves.
These issues have only compounded an already complicated testing system and added more frustration to students and teachers alike, Fanning said.
These state assessments affect more people than the just students who take them, according to Fanning.
In accordance with legislation passed in the last five years, the TNReady state assessments are also used when evaluating teacher performance.
As a general rule of thumb, Fanning said, the TNReady scores account for 35 percent of an instructor’s evaluation score, though the percentage may be lower depending on the school year.
A Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) document explaining the rules for the TNReady score impacts states that those scores counted for 10 percent of a teacher’s evaluation for the 2016-2017 school year, 20 percent for the 2017-2018 school year and 35 percent for the 2018-2019 school year and thereafter.
However, some years may not count due to the continued testing issues over the last three school years.
For instance, because exams were suspended for third- through eighth-graders during the 2015-2016 school year, the scores from that year only count if they help the teacher’s overall evaluation.
If the TNReady score would negatively impact the overall evaluation, the scores are not counted and a different assessment measure is increased.
These evaluations determine whether educators are recommended for tenure. Whether teachers receive tenure determines whether they remain employed by a school district. Therefore, these statewide assessments could have long-lasting impacts on the overall career of educators in the state.
Schools are also measured in part by the state assessments, meaning schools could be negatively impacted when the tests don’t go well.
Alternative testing methods
It is Tullahoma City Schools’ position that students – particularly elementary-aged students – are over-tested with these new state standards.
According to Fanning, the state pushes an “inordinate amount of testing” on young students – more than is required for a law student or a Ph.D. candidate, in fact.
On average, elementary and middle school students spend approximately 8 hours and 25 minutes taking exams for TNReady.
The tests are given over a period of five days, with some makeup testing days added for students who miss parts of their tests.
Because of this, Fanning said the district is still firmly standing behind a push to change the method and format of testing that is required of elementary school students.
Over the last few years, several district and school board officials have made presentations to the Tennessee General Assembly in support of moving from TNReady state assessments to a more nationally accepted format of standardized testing.
The preferred testing suite of TCS is the ACT-based “Aspire” standardized tests.
According to its website, ACT Aspire is “the only system of assessments directly connected to the most used college entrance exam, the ACT test.”
The tests can be used to determine readiness benchmarks also used by ACT, which might accurately predict student scores on the ACT.
The Aspire tests also allow educators a greater glimpse of where students might be at risk academically, which would help lead to early interventions, according to its website.
Fanning said another benefit of ACT Aspire is the efficiency of scoring. She said ACT Aspire has a “quick turnaround,” which allows for teachers and administrators to look at scoring data in enough time to give teachers a way to prepare for students’ needs.
Comparatively, the TNReady results take nearly a month to get back, with some results not coming in at all, such as the elementary and middle school results from 2015-2016.
According to state education officials, the raw score data from this year’s online TNReady exams will not be ready until May 22, with full reports not available until May 30.
Paper-and-pencil exam results will take even longer to come back, with those reports not due back to school districts until June 15.
During a hearing on Wednesday afternoon, Tennessee Department of Education Commissioner Candice McQueen was grilled by lawmakers during a hearing by the Government Operations and Joint House Education committees. The hearing was available for viewing vie a livestream on Facebook and news websites.
Rep. Mike Stewart (D-Nashville) asked McQueen if she would step down and demanded an independent investigation of the testing problems.
“No, I do not plan to resign,” McQueen said in response.
Several lawmakers have called for this year’s results to not be included in any growth measurements or teacher evaluations due to the problems.
Some have even put forward amendments to a bill that would require students to take paper-and-pencil tests going forward and to bar teachers from getting negative evaluations as a result of the tests.
Rep. Stewart and Rep. William Lamberth (R-Cottontown) have both put forward amendments barring the state from administering TNReady tests in online or computerized formats.
Rep. Craig Fitzhugh (D-Ripley), who is also a gubernatorial candidate, submitted an amendment in that vein. Fitzhugh’s amendment states that no TNReady funds will be used for the online testing program “unless and until the comptroller of the treasury certifies … that all issues and problems with the online TNReady testing program have been fully and completely fixed.”
Rep. Jeremy Faison (R-Cosby) submitted an amendment stating the results from this year’s TNReady exams will be excluded from evaluations and growth measurements if they negatively impact the teachers, students and schools.
Faison’s amendment also stipulates that school districts will be able to decide if they want to completely exclude this year’s TNReady results from students’ final grades.
In addition to several legislative steps, McQueen has also requested the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the state Office of Homeland Security investigate the potential cyber-attack, according to a statement from TDOE.
McQueen “pursued official channels” through Nashville District Attorney Glen Funk to formally engage the TBI and Homeland Security to investigate “TNReady’s traffic pattern that was consistent with an online attack,” the statement reads.
In addition to involving official state investigators, McQueen also announced that the department is initiating the engagement of a third party with cyber security expertise to analyze Questar’s response to the possible attack on Tuesday.
The statement did not specify who the “third party with cyber security expertise” would be, and requests for clarifications to McQueen’s office went unanswered by press time.
As of Thursday afternoon, THS Principal Kathy Rose said that testing was still suspended due to continued issues with the system.
“There are still issues with testing,” she said.
Rose said the high school started the morning with testing in chemistry, but then the system started crashing again, so school officials suspended further testing.
“We tested first period, and we’re hoping that what we tested and submitted went through, but we can’t confirm it,” Rose said.
“We think what we may have done with chemistry may have gone through, but we don’t know,” she said.
Erin McCullough may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.