School officials confirm TNReady testing problems, possibly due to 'deliberate attack'

Zach Vance • Updated Apr 17, 2018 at 7:07 PM

From Williamson County to Washington County, school officials across Tennessee are once again grappling with TNReady testing issues, this time likely due to a “deliberate attack.” 

Tennessee Department of Education Commissioner Candice McQueen issued a statement to all state school superintendents Tuesday morning notifying them that the TNReady testing vendor, Questar, is investigating the cause of the issue, but “evidence continues to suggest strongly that the Questar data center is under attack from an external source.” 

“Protecting student information is the first priority for both the department and Questar, and the testing program is designed to mask and protect student information. To our knowledge, no data has been compromised, and Questar is continuing to take action to ensure that remains the case,” McQueen said in the statement. 

McQueen said officials believe the testing issues are a deliberate attack based on the way “traffic is presenting itself.” 

“They are currently resetting the system. However, the attacker may take these same steps again, and Questar is actively working on further reinforcements, including notifying authorities,” McQueen said. 

Just before noon Tuesday, McQueen said testing had resumed and Questar had blocked the source of the unusual traffic patterns. The source of the attack is still unknown.  

According to a statement from Questar, the testing vendor became aware of an issue around 9:45 a.m. that prevented students from logging in or submitting tests. 

“At this time, we are investigating the cause. Initial findings indicate it is external to our online delivery platform. We are working with our hosting vendor to determine the root cause and have taken necessary measures to allow students to resume successful testing. At this time, testing has resumed,” Questar Chief Operating Officer Brad Baumgartner said. 

Washington County Assistant Director of Schools Bill Flanary said nearly every school in his system has experienced multiple problems related to administering the online TNReady test. 

“We're getting updates from the state testing office every few minutes. It appears that, yes, there has been a deliberate attack on Tennessee's online testing service,” Flanary said. “The testing service, Questar, is resetting their system. That won't preclude the attacker from doing the same thing again, however.”

Flanary said Washington County’s internal serves appear to be working as they should. 

“The slowdown/shutdown has been on Questar's side. Students and teachers alike are frustrated. We have little option other than to wait and hope the state gets these issues sorted out,” Flanary said. 

Testing for most Tennessee schools began Monday, but Johnson City Schools was out Monday due to an unused built-in snow day and began TNReady testing on Tuesday. 

“At Liberty Bell, we did experience some login issues from the testing vendor. We found nothing on our end that was contributing to students having difficulty logging in,” Director of Instruction and Communication Debroah Bentley said. 

She estimated approximately 550 Liberty Bell students and 250 Science Hill students were involved in TNReady online testing Tuesday. 

“They were able to test and submit their work. However, we had testing scheduled at both Liberty Bell and at Science Hill for the afternoon and we have suspended that testing based on information that we are receiving from Commissioner McQueen,” Bentley said. 

Third and fourth grade students are taking the TNReady test using paper and pencil and have experienced no problems, Bentley said.

A Unicoi County school official also confirmed that school system has experienced TNReady testing issues.

Additionally, The Tennessean reported Knox County, Williamson County and Wilson County schools have experienced similar issues and have canceled testing for the day.

Bentley said Johnson City Schools officials will wait for direction from state officials about whether to continue testing Wednesday.

Flanary said he feels bad for state education officials who are once again dealing with issues related to TNReady testing for the third straight year.

“Having said that, I feel that it is imperative that the Tennessee General Assembly take steps to make sure that teacher evaluations are not negatively impacted by these testing issues. To base teacher effect scores on a testing process that has been this fraught with irregularities is untenable,” Flanary said.

Tennessee’s high school students are currently required to take TNReady exams in English I, II and III; algebra I and II and geometry; biology and chemistry; and U.S. history.

Third-through-eighth graders take TNReady assessments in language arts, math, science and social studies at the end of each school year.

According to the state’s website, TNReady is a component of the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, or TCAP, and the test is designed to assess a student’s true understanding of a subject, not just basic memorization and test-taking skills.

Frustration has mounted over TNReady since the 2015-16 school year when the spring test could not be administered online. State officials turned to ordering paper copies, but the state’s previous testing vendor, Measurement, Inc., could not deliver the hard copies on time, resulting in the cancellation of testing for grades 3-8.

In April 2016, state education officials cut ties with Measurement, Inc., and entered into a two-year, $60 million contract with Questar. Measurement, Inc. has since sued the state for roughly $25.7 million for breaching the contract.

Last year, Questar was blamed by some lawmakers when 9,400 of the state’s 1.9 million TNReady assessments were scored incorrectly.

In response to the testing fiasco, Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, said Tuesday afternoon that lawmakers passed an amended bill that stated student and teacher evaluations would not be affected by this year’s TNReady test results.

He said another amendment attached to the same bill, HB2150, would require future TNReady tests be administered only using pen and paper. That legislation will have to pass through the House Finance, Ways and Means Committee since being amended.



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