Internet Trouble Delays Kansas Testing, Causes Alaska to Scrap Assessments

By Michelle R. Davis — April 05, 2016 5 min read
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A disruption to Internet access at the site of a Kansas-based assessment provider delayed testing of students across the country and caused Alaska to cancel state assessments altogether this school year.

A backhoe used in construction work at the University of Kansas on the afternoon of March 29 accidentally cut a fiber optic cable providing the campus digital connection. Servers at the university’s Center for Educational Testing & Evaluation, which provides state assessments for students in Kansas and Alaska, went down.

The stoppage meant students in those states taking CETE tests could not finish or begin testing. And students in 15 other states, in addition to Kansas and Alaska, which use the CETE’s Dynamic Learning Maps to assess students with significant cognitive disabilities, also were also unable to access the tests.

“The testing platform ... went down,” said Marianne Perie, the director of CETE, who said the signal was severed at the main trunk line bringing Internet to the campus. “It was about the worst place you could cut a line.”

Students who were testing at the time in Kansas, where the assessment window had recently opened, received popup messages saying their machines was no longer connected to the Internet.

The system automatically saves all test answers students have provided, except for the question a student is working on when the outage takes place, Perie said.

The university worked quickly to patch the cable and testing resumed, with limited capacity the following day, Perie said. On March 31, CETE told states they could return to normal testing, but the system was overloaded and went down again, staying down while officials worked on it through the weekend. This week testing resumed and was back to normal with 21,000 students testing simultaneously with no difficulties, she said.

However, Alaska’s interim state education department commissioner Susan McCauley announced on April 1 that the state would cancel CETE’s Alaska Measures of Progress testing for all students this academic year, despite the fact that Alaska’s testing window had just opened.

McCauley said the unreliability of the system—being told it was back online only to have it crash again—and considerations unique to Alaska prompted her decision to discontinue testing for the year.

“The amount of chaos in Alaska schools last week cannot be overstated,” she said in an interview this week, adding that teachers had to scramble to create lessons when they thought testing was to take place instead. “To ask teachers and students to ‘try it again’ with no guarantee that it was going to work was irresponsible.”

One of the state’s largest rural school systems, the 2,000-student North Slope Borough School District, for example, had planned to test students early to release them for whale hunting season, and would be unable to reschedule testing later during the window, McCauley said. In addition, many home-schooled or remote Alaska students must travel to testing facilities for assessment. Some have to travel more than 100 miles by car, or fly or take a ferry.

“I couldn’t ask them to come in again for a system in which we could get no guarantee of it being functional,” she said.

AMP tests were already on their way out in Alaska. After using the tests for the first time in the 2014-205 school year, the state decided this was to be the last year students would take the tests and are seeking another assessment vendor.

Perie said she wished that McCauley had just waited a few days to make her decision, by which time the system would have been working. She said the state will be missing out on useful data that could provide information on student growth in Alaska. But she understood the frustration of schools and districts trying to deal with the uncertainty.

“On schools’ behalf, I feel their pain,” she said. “When teachers think they have a day of testing and have to come up with lessons, I sympathize with that.”

Daniel Walker, the superintendent of the 4,300-student Lower Kuskokwim School District in Bethel, Alaska, said he agreed with McCauley’s decision. His district was already having technical difficulties with language-assessment testing for the large population of English-language learners in his district who speak the Native Alaskan language of Yup’ik. After AMP, students were proceeding to district testing with Measures of Academic Progress assessments.

Walker said he didn’t believe that limited years of AMP testing would provide insight that other testing does not.

“I was concerned with assessment fatigue,” he said. “I’m really glad they ditched it.”

In addition, educating students in rural Alaska already comes with a host of technical problems that are battled on a near-daily basis, he said. “With our limited bandwidth and no assurance that this was going to work,” he said, “the frustration levels were going to be off the charts.”

In Kansas, most districts said they believed they could still complete testing before the window closes in May, said Brad Neuenswander, the deputy commissioner of the Division of Learning Services at the Kansas State Department of Education. He said the state has worked with CETE for decades and has full confidence in the assessment system. “Right now we’re not going to extend the window, but we still have flexibility with that if we need it,” he said. “We’ll be monitoring the situation.”

CETE plans to put a contingency plan in place to prevent future issues, Perie said, with a bank of servers that will be housed off campus by a third party, but would be owned by CETE, which would have exclusive access to the data contained, she said. If on-campus servers were compromised, CETE would be able to switch, with minimal interruptions, to the backup option, she said.

At the 51,100-student Wichita Public Schools, some students were not able to complete sections of the tests they were working on when the system went down, but district spokesperson Susan Arensman said this week that Wichita students’ work was saved and they will be able to get back in and complete their assessments. She said the district anticipates being able to finish testing by the state deadline. As of Monday, students were testing and “back on track,” she said.

“It’s one of those things where it’s frustrating for the school and students because they get prepared for this and it’s not able to happen,” she said. But technological glitches “are just part of our reality.”

In fact, in 2014 Kansas had to suspend testing because CETE was attacked by cyber-hackers. As a result, the state was unable to report its scores to the federal government.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.