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Delays with computer-based state tests cause headaches at some New York schools

Hundreds of New York state students experienced problems taking computer-based state tests Wednesday morning, officials confirmed, potentially causing some schools to postpone the exams.

Questar Assessment, Inc., which develops New York state’s third-through-eighth grade reading and math exams, “experienced delays in the delivery of computer-based tests to students in some schools this morning,” according to Emily DeSantis, a spokeswoman for the state’s education department. “Questar has been working to resolve this as quickly as possible.”

Roughly 700 students had trouble submitting their exam responses, according to Brad Baumgartner, Questar’s chief operating officer. He also said some students had trouble logging in to take the test, but it was not clear how many. Students were eventually able to login, Baumgartner said, adding that student responses would not be lost even if they had trouble submitting them.

“Students who were testing wouldn’t have even noticed,” he said. Questar officials said the problem was related to a separate company Questar uses for “hosting” services.  

The problem did not affect students in New York City since none of the city’s students take the computer-based tests, according to Will Mantell, an education department spokesman. Officials said that the state successfully administered computer-based tests to 32,000 students on Tuesday.

New York State United Teachers, though, released a statement outlining problems in other parts of the state. In Victor, Saranac Lake and Spencerport, teachers were unable to administer the tests properly because of “technological failures,” the union said, an some Yonkers students received “system error” messages when answering questions.

“If children are going to sit for state standardized tests and are prepared to do their very best, the State Education Department must be able to guarantee that the tests are fair and accurate, and they don’t leave kids anxious and rattled,” NYSUT Executive Vice President Jolene DiBrango said.

This is not the state’s first problem with Questar: In January, state officials revealed that Questar experienced a data breach that affected roughly 50 students. (Baumgartner said the company has initiated additional safeguards after that incident.)

While only 28,000 students took last year’s state exams on computers (and another 60,000 took computer-based trial tests), the state hopes to eventually move all students to computer-based testing. Wednesday’s hiccup could make the switch to computer-based testing more difficult.

New York hired Questar in part to quell testing anxiety after the state’s former test vendor, Pearson, made a series of missteps that inflamed the grassroots backlash against the state tests. Questar’s roughly $44 million contract runs through 2020 and requires the company to develop computer-based exams, in addition to paper tests.

But other states have also experienced problems with the company. Last year, roughly 9,400 Tennessee students received incorrect test scores due to a glitch in Questar’s test-scanning program. And in Missouri, the state education department threatened legal action against Questar after a design problem with its exams meant that they could not be used to evaluate districts or compare student performance across the state, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Baumgartner, the Questar official, said the company takes all problems seriously, and the company was flying about 10 employees to New York to ensure the rest of testing goes smoothly.

“Anytime a student’s experience isn’t optimal it’s something we take really seriously,” he added. “In our world there is no such thing as a minor incident.”

Monica Disare contributed.