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Some digital ELA tests to resume Thursday

In the Longwood school district Wednesday, teacher Lisa

In the Longwood school district Wednesday, teacher Lisa Zacpal instructs third-graders at Charles E. Walters Elementary School in Yaphank. Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

A limited number of students on Long Island and statewide will resume taking digital English Language Arts tests Thursday, after widespread disruptions caused when database servers for the Minneapolis-based company responsible for the exams broke down under heavy usage Tuesday, state education officials announced.

The debacle with the computer-based tests, or CBTs — a repeat of glitches experienced last year — brought blistering denunciations from teacher unions and other organizations, not only against Questar Assessment Inc., but for state education authorities responsible for monitoring the firm's performance.

Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, in a hastily called teleconference Wednesday afternoon, announced resumption of ELA testing, but said it initially will be restricted to grades five and eight. The state's chief school executive voiced exasperation with the latest breakdowns, adding that New York lags behind other states in the transition from paper-and-pencil tests to digital versions.

"There is no excuse for the difficulties experienced by schools administering computer-based testing," Elia stated. "We are holding Questar accountable for its failure to deliver the services required in our contract with them."

Elia added that the Education Department had not yet determined how Questar — which provides paper and digital tests for 1.1 million students in New York annually — might be penalized or whether its state contract might be canceled. The firm's five-year, $44.8 million contract expires in November 2020. 

Of 93,000 students who started the digital tests Tuesday, 93 percent successfully completed and submitted exams that day, the department reported. But the breakdowns resulted in statewide cancellation of CBT operations all day Wednesday, forcing dozens of school districts to revamp schedules for the coming week. 

A department news release quoted Questar and associated agencies, ETS and Microsoft, as reporting that "database servers ran out of free memory due to to a high frequency of transactions," causing disruptions. Many students found themselves unable to log into the testing system and complete exams, or were kicked out of the system entirely, the department said. 

Brad Baumgartner, Questar's chief operating officer, responded in a statement that corporate representatives understood the frustration and had consulted with outside firms on fixing the damage.

"Questar Assessment Inc. is committed to the students, teachers and school districts of New York State, and we take our responsibility to provide accurate and insightful testing results seriously," Baumgartner said.

A company spokeswoman, Allison Ortiz, declined to answer a Newsday question as to whether Questar had failed to install enough equipment to handle a big increase this year in districts committing to administer the digital tests. Sixty-six public schools in 29 districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties signed up for digital English testing in some grades, compared with 27 schools in 19 districts for last year's exams.

New York brought in Questar in 2015 to provide its federally required tests in grades three through eight, marking the second time the state had replaced assessment companies. The contract includes $8.2 million for computer-based testing. 

Questar, like the Pearson and McGraw-Hill companies that preceded it, came under withering fire Wednesday from New York State United Teachers, a statewide union representing  600,000 educators and others. NYSUT had warned in advance of this week's testing that glitches were likely.

"In 2018, students, parents and educators were assured that the failures of New York's computer-based test systems for grades 3-8 would not be repeated. This week, we found out that assurance was hollow," the group said. "Computer-based testing must be halted, and not only should Questar be held accountable for this debacle, the state must as well."

Roger Tilles of Great Neck, who represents Nassau and Suffolk counties on the state Board of Regents, voiced discouragement. The board is the state's highest education policy authority, and Elia reports to the panel. 

"Errors after errors don't give any confidence that next year will be any better," Tilles said.

Local school districts, meanwhile, carried on Wednesday as best they could.

The Longwood district, which successfully tested about 600 students via computer Tuesday, resumed regular classes for those students Wednesday, and declared it would return to giving the digital test on Thursday. Just under 100 students were unable to complete Tuesday's tests, local officials said. 

Lisa Mato, the system's director of special programs and data reporting, said state education staffers helped local schools through the first round of testing, but that interruptions were stressful.

"It is an inconvenience and not an easy task for administrators to reschedule testing on different days of the week than those originally assigned," Mato said.

Syosset's school board and Superintendent Thomas Rogers on Wednesday sent a letter to Elia, asking that students affected by the disruptions not be required to retake computer-based tests, and asserting that students, staffers and schools alike should not be penalized for incomplete scores beyond their control.

Department officials, in response, noted that retesting would not be required, and that the agency "will review all issues associated with the CBT difficulties." 

Repeated problems with state exams and test preparation over the years have resulted in widespread test boycotts, with the biggest protests erupting on the Island. This week's test sessions show a repeat of the pattern. 

Nearly 59,000 elementary and middle school students in 85 systems across Long Island had refused to take the state ELA exam as of Wednesday — 44.7 percent of students eligible in those districts to take the tests, according to responses to a Newsday survey. All told, 123 districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties administer the ELA in at least some grades.

Both the computer-based tests and the traditional pencil-and-paper ELA tests are supposed to be given over two consecutive days. The Education Department sets the time frames within which school systems can administer the tests, and the local districts choose their test dates.

With Joie Tyrrell

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story gave an incorrect title for Brad Baumgartner of Questar Assessment Inc.

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