After Possible Cyberattack on School Testing System, Tennessee Won't Punish Bad Results

While examinations are moving forward for Maury County, some other Tennessee school districts are still struggling with the TNReady software.

by Mike Christen, The Daily Herald / April 20, 2018

(TNS) — Despite some hiccups at the start of the week, Maury County Public Schools says the state's annual TNReady examinations are moving smoothly forward for the county, while some other Tennessee school districts continue to see issues.

MCPS Spokesperson Kim Doddridge said the district's high school students were affected, joining those from across the state on Tuesday.

"There is no work lost that we know of," Doddridge told The Daily Herald on Thursday. "It is frustrating for our well-prepared students and teachers."

She said the issues only affected local high school students who are required to take a web-based version of the examination administered by third party contractor Questar. All other classes used traditional paper and pencil tests.

The online examinations were halted by the Tennessee Department of Education on Tuesday after a suspected deliberate cyber attack on the computer systems administering the test.

Following deliberations, the Tennessee General Assembly decided Thursday that it will ensure students, teachers and districts are held harmless for this year's TNReady results.

The measure says test results this school year will only count if it benefits students, educators and districts.

It was also decided that school districts can not base employment or compensation decisions on the data, the legislation says.

Dickson County Schools Superintendent Danny Weeks announced on Twitter the district would suspend online testing for the day. At Rutherford County Schools, a spokesman said the district was working through the issues. Lakeland School System in Shelby County also announced it had widespread problems.

TNReady is a standardized test measuring student proficiency in math and language arts for students in grades 3 through 11.

Schools across the state also struggled with unrelated problems plaguing the online test for the second day.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said in emails to directors that the Tennessee Department of Education wants to continue with online testing.

After issuing an apology on Wednesday, McQueen said the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and Homeland Security will investigate the cyber attack.

"There's a lot of talk about whether the department of education or Questar (is to blame)," McQueen told Daily Herald news partner WSMV-TV. "I think it's a hard question in terms of we do want that one throat to choke. The typical response is who is the person you want to hold accountable, and unfortunately this is a situation where there are lots and lots of people involved."

Questar and the Tennessee Department of Education said no student data was compromised. McQueen said the department will see how testing goes over the next three weeks, and then determine whether districts need to throw out any scores.

The department also plans to engage a third party to analyze testing vendor Questar's response to the possible cyber attack.

More than 200,000 test sessions have been completed so far this week.

To make up for the lost time this week, the department has extended the testing window.

The state assessment has a history of issues. In 2016, the state's testing vendor experienced severe statewide problems resulting in its cancellation. The state then fired its vendor, Measurement Inc., and hired Questar Assessment to administer the test.

"Teachers and parents were so well prepared and I think parents might share that frustration," Doddridge said Thursday. "Testing time always brings anxiety, but our students are very well prepared kids thanks to parents and teachers."

Maury County Public Schools will resume testing next week.

A reduction in state examinations

Earlier this month McQueen announced the approval of recommendations that would reduce student testing in 2018-19.

The recommendations are the first to be released by the state's third Task Force on Student Testing and Assessment — which includes educators, parents and education leaders from across the state — and are a result of months of analysis and discussion, as well as additional surveys from high school teachers and parents.

The state confirmed it would:

  • Eliminate the TNReady chemistry end-of-course exam; instead, the department will provide a chemistry test form as an option for local administration and scoring;
  • Eliminate the TNReady English III end-of-course exam; additionally, the department will prioritize adding a statewide dual credit English composition option that will be available beginning in 2019-20; and
  • Collaborate with the Tennessee Board of Regents to use the TNReady U.S. history end-of-course exam as a dual credit exam and help students earn college credit from their TNReady score.

In addition, next year the department will:

  • Eliminate the stand-alone field test for at least the next two years; and
  • Reduce time on the TNReady English language arts exam in grades 3 and 4 to make it a combined 78 minutes shorter.

"While Tennessee students spend less than one percent of the school year taking state-required assessments, the department has taken steps over the past three years to reduce the burden of testing on students and provide a more positive and efficient assessment experience," the department announced.

©2018 The Daily Herald (Columbia, Tenn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.