Computer disruptions at schools nullify results of state tests

This spring, school principals across Georgia did what they’d always done on the morning their students were in their chairs, poised to take the most important test of the year. They went on the intercom and counted down to zero.

When the principals yelled “go,” nothing happened at many schools. That’s because more schools than ever opted to take the Georgia Milestones standardized tests on computer, and when all the students in each school tapped and clicked at the same time, the local networks buckled.

It was one of the many technological problems that led the Georgia Board of Education to give up on the 2016 test results. They voted Thursday to waive the rule that requires them to be used in grade promotion decisions. No third, fifth or eighth grade student will be held back because of their scores.

“We do not want to penalize any child in Georgia for something that was beyond their control,” state Superintendent Richard Woods said.

Officials cannot say how many students were affected, but they reported that 7 percent of test “sessions” were disrupted. Each student in grades three through eight takes nine sessions. Nearly half of Georgia students in that age group took the test on a computer.

Besides statewide network issues, there were local problems: interruptions from anti-virus programs and ill-timed operating system updates or system backups. Some older operating systems were incompatible with the state testing service.

“A lot of it’s been software updates on iOS devices,” said Mike Royal, chairman of the state school board.

Melissa Fincher, who oversees testing for the Georgia Department of Education, said her agency will train school administrators and their technology staff. Principals will be instructed not to count down on the intercom anymore to avoid a flood of simultaneous computer signals that overwhelm the school’s network. “It’s probably not a good idea to have your students hit the devices to begin their testing at the same time,” she said.

It’s the second year of glitches. Last year, the education department extracted financial concessions from its vendor after an online screen reader was said to have failed repeatedly, causing minor disruptions across the state. This year, the state’s vendor, Data Recognition Corp., had system problems on the morning of April 19, according to an email Fincher sent to local testing directors later that day.

The company found “a setting on their end that likely caused the TSM backlog experienced this morning, as well as on previous mornings (albeit to a lesser degree),” said the email, which was obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Thursday she acknowledged the state was responsible for some of the “lagging.”

It said the backlog was fixed by mid-morning. Fincher said 131,000 students were testing simultaneously that day, “but at no time did we have to suspend testing.”

In DeKalb County, the disruptions were so bad at 10 elementary and middle schools that testing had to be halted on April 20 and resumed the next day. In Fulton, there were numerous complaints about test disruptions. Officials there said most of their problems occurred as testing began a week earlier. The problems receded and by the 19th only three schools were reporting disruptions, the district said. They were blamed on server overload, an unscheduled iPad OS software update and an AT&T outage.

Fulton said the state smoothed many of its problems before other districts started testing. “Fulton was one of the first big districts to begin testing,” spokeswoman Susan Hale said, “and, as a result, we ourselves became test subjects for the vendor’s large scale test administration.”

Jamie Lynn Wills, a Cherokee County parent, said an entire class of third graders there could not log into the system and had to wait a day. “These are issues that come with testing via technology and they will not go away,” she said, arguing that tests should be administered the old way, on paper.

Abigail Coggin, a parent and school board member in Newton County, said her district should have stayed with the paper tests. There were reports of children who lost what they’d written when the computer logged them out. At one school 21 of 22 eighth grade students had to stop the test and restart, she said, adding that the schools lacked the technological capacity to administer tests online.

The state education department should offer tech support rather than mere training, she said. “The state should go in and ensure that the local technology departments can handle all the students taking the test at the same time.”

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