(Update: New information on number of students who will be retested, other details)
For two days this week, tens of thousands of Virginia students taking year-end Standards of Learning exams have experienced significant disruptions because of computer problems — including a cyberattack — involving the state’s test contractor, the testing giant Pearson.
Charles Pyle, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education, acknowledged that on Wednesday and Thursday, SOL exams were disrupted in schools across the state, although for different reasons. Pearson, the world’s largest education company, has been the state’s testing contractor for years. Last July, Virginia renewed its contract with Pearson for three years, $37 million annually.
This is not the only state where Pearson has experienced problems with its testing services this year. The company, which has a contract to administer the Common Core PARCC exam as well as many other standardized tests given in various states, sustained cyberattacks in other states in recent weeks. For example, in Minnesota, Pearson-created standardized tests were disrupted in April, and then again this week during retesting despite additional security measures installed to avoid such problems.
A Pearson spokesman provided this in response to questions about the computer problems:
Pearson testing in Virginia experienced a disruption on 5/14 due to a server reaching its storage capacity limit. Despite this disruption, students affected by this issue who began testing yesterday had the ability to complete their testing. By the end of day yesterday, over 109,000 tests were successfully completed. Pearson is working diligently to implement additional automated safeguards to minimize further disruptions for students.
On 5/13, Pearson testing also experienced intermittent disruptions due to a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack. This malicious, third party attack was a deliberate attempt to overload and slow down system traffic. We worked to mitigate the attacks, minimize the disruptions and return service to normal. DDoS attacks are not attempts to access student data, and at no time was student data compromised.
We are closely monitoring the activity on our systems and remaining vigilant for any additional issues. Our teams are available at a moment’s notice to respond immediately, if needed. We will continue to strengthen our efforts to fend off these attacks.
We understand the frustration around these issues and will continue to work proactively to make sure students have a good testing experience.
Problems with testing raise questions about the validity of the exams and whether the results should be used to evaluate students and teachers for high-stakes decisions.
On Wednesday, Pyle said, the disruption was mostly to administrators and that of 103,000 students tested, 89 will have to be retested at one school in Hanover County. Pyle said that the problem on Thursday was with the actual test delivery system, TestNav, from 10:20 a.m. to 11:20 a.m., as more than 109,000 students were taking SOLs at various grade levels and in a variety of subjects. He said that 243 students scattered in different schools around the state will be retested.
He said that in many but not all cases “students were wrapping up” their tests but were prevented from finishing. Most schools, he said, required the students to stay “in place” until the problem was fixed — meaning that they sat at their computer stations for at least an hour doing nothing. Other schools allowed the students to leave with instructions not to discuss test items, and they resumed the assessment later. Yet other schools decided that students would not take or complete tests on Thursday but would be retested later.
In Fairfax County, according to spokesman John Torre, “the problem was logging on, starting the test, and logging out, submitting their test responses. Those students had to wait until the connections were restored.” One Fairfax teacher said that students who had completed the test but could not submit their answers were forced to sit, missing lunch or eating silently because they were considered to be in a live testing situation.
Pyle noted that the state has technology in place that allows the local storage of test answers as students move through the test so no completed answers are lost, reducing “the impact of network and local connectivity issues on students already testing.” That’s why, he said, “we did not have a statewide shutdown on May 13 like Minnesota.”
Asked whether Pearson would be asked to repay money or make some restitution for the problems, Pyle said there are “performance expectations in the contract.” According to those standards, Pearson must give 250 tests to the state for free for every hour that the Virginia testing system doesn’t work. He said that any penalty would be imposed for Thursday’s disruption but not Wednesday’s because of the way but he had no further details about what the department might do.