Tenn. Online Test Crashes, Causing Delays and Return to Paper and Pencil

By Leo Doran — February 09, 2016 3 min read
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Tennessee officials have halted the online administration of the state’s assessment after widespread failures that they attributed to a “procedural problem with the vendor.”

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the breakdowns occurred on the morning of the first day of testing, in the first year that the exams were implemented by a new testing vendor for the state, Measurement Inc.

As the scope of the testing breakdowns became evident, state officials directed school districts to postpone administering the exams until paper and pencil versions could be printed and distributed.

According to McQueen, department of education officials had been working with the Durham, N.C.-based company since an October “stress test” of the platform to increase server capacity and fix problems.

State officials said that shortcomings discovered during that stress test, and ongoing concerns about the stability of the platform—called the Measurement Incorporated Secure Testing, or MIST—led them to alert districts last week that they had the option of testing with paper and pencil.

Then, on Monday, a new batch of network failures, unrelated to the issues that were thought to have been fixed, forced the state to require all schools in all districts to administer hard copies of the assessment.

Though McQueen says that the terms of Tennessee’s contract with Measurement Inc. shield the state from any additional costs associated making the necessary fixes, she did acknowledge widespread frustration among students and teachers over the scheduling issues caused by the delays.

In a conference call with reporters, McQueen blamed the vendor for the failures. But, she also ultimately said, “When you are talking about the vendor, you are talking about the state,” and that local districts “are absolutely not to blame.”

According to Cliff Lloyd, the department of education’s chief information officer, the testing breakdowns “occurred because of processes kicked off by the vendor” which led to flooded servers and system failures.

In a statement, Measurement Inc.'s president, Henry Scherich, said the company was “very disappointed” by the decision to suspend the online testing and move to a paper and pencil administration.

Scherich voiced confidence in the MIST platform, saying that Tennessee students took more than 1.1 million practice assessments in January to get ready for this week’s exams.

The Measurement Inc. president added that the company is convinced that the server overload problem has been fixed. He attributed the problems some students had logging in to the system to “improper network utilization, not MIST functionality.”

Disruptions on online assessments have become common in states around the country, enraging district leaders, teachers, and parents, and fueling anti-testing sentiment.

In many cases, states have sought monetary reimbursement from test vendors for delays and disruptions. The causes of the breakdowns have varied from state to state. Recent testing failures in Kentucky and Florida were later linked to cyberattacks.

Tennessee is one of many states that has embarked on the transition to online platforms for administering its state assessment in recent years. As EdWeek’s Ben Herold reported, however, recent analyses have shown that the format in which students take tests can affect their scores.

McQueen declined to comment on how the problems would affect the state’s relationship with Measurement Inc., beyond saying that her department would continue its yearly review of testing procedures.

In 2014, the state entered a $108 million contract with the vendor that is set to run from 2015 to 2020. The Measurement Inc.'s MIST platform is also used by state departments of education in Michigan, Utah and Connecticut.

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