Jason Gonzales, Nashville Tennessean
Large-scale TNReady issues that Tennessee officials feared was an apparent cyber attack this spring instead originated with an unauthorized change made by the state’s vendor to its systems.
The issues confirm the fears of some lawmakers that the problems again originated from the testing system itself, rather than an outside source.
The unauthorized change and subsequent issues mean the state will pay less for Questar’s work, according to a Tennessee Department of Education news release.
“It appears, thankfully, that there was not an outside actor who attacked Questar’s data system,” according to Sara Gast, education department spokeswoman, in the news release. “No student data was breached.”
Gast said in the release that the issues that began on April 17 were the result of how Questar Assessment’s systems stored information connected to its text-to-speech function.
She said Questar made an unauthorized change to text-to-speech, which had previously operated without problems during the state’s fall administration.
“Questar’s internal and external investigations indicate that the source of the anomalous data pattern is believed to be the result of a configuration with the cache server,” said Brad Baumgartner, Questar’s chief operating officer. “We have applied a configuration change and believe to have resolved the issue. We will continue to work with our internal technology team and external partners to validate this.”
Gast said the Tennessee Department of Education has informed Questar that the department is reducing the amount it will give the company for the spring online assessment administration by $2.5 million to account for the substandard performance.
The state offered the company a two-year, $30-million per year contract in 2016 after the state fired its previous vendor, which was unable to deliver online testing.
The spring testing window was mired with problems, with many districts across the state delaying testing when connectivity issues occurred.
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said before lawmakers on Wednesday that the issues with the vendor can’t be excused.
“We are absolutely apologizing for what experienced with the vendor and, ultimately, it wasn’t the way we wanted it to end up at all,” McQueen said. “We have to get the delivery piece right. Our work is to make sure we have a vendor and external review in place to allow us to move forward.”
The state is allowing proposals for a new test vendor
Last week, McQueen announced that the state will renew its contract with Questar for one more year due to how hard it will be to find a new vendor in time for the administration of the 2018-19 school year test.
The contract will be amended to ensure certain performance standards, she said. The contract will likely cost the state less overall.
McQueen said at the time the state will also open up the bidding process for a new contract in the fall to take over the test in 2019-20 and beyond. A new contract is expected by next spring, she said.
Through the contract amendment, Questar is also required to undergo a third-party analysis of their technological capabilities.
Tennessee officials were the ones to discover it wasn’t a cyber attack
McQueen said to lawmakers the storage issues with the text-to-chat function overloaded Questar’s infrastructure. The issues caused problems across multiple other states contracted with Questar.
Those states include:
- New York
- South Dakota
Tennessee officials and a third-party investigator first discovered that Questar’s problems weren’t from a cyber attack, McQueen said.
“They were coming to the conclusion themselves,” McQueen said.
Lawmakers are concerned about the future of the test
McQueen has been adamant the state must move forward with online testing, with Tennessee being one of only 10 that haven’t moved to online testing.
Tennessee legislators have expressed concern over the state’s testing vendor and its systems, especially after 2016 when under a different testing vendor the state needed to cancel online spring testing altogether.
Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, during a Wednesday questioning of McQueen over the TNReady issues, said the state must get testing right.
He asked that the state move forward with the input of teachers.
“In your department, sometimes you are guilty of taking a 30,000-foot view,” Faison said. “Sometimes that is good, but sometimes it is also good to have boots on the ground. Going forward, I’m not sure what is going to happen with a new governor, but I want to make sure we don’t take our foot off the gas.”
Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, however, said he has no faith in the test vendor or the state’s ability to properly administer an online test.
“If Questar fails, and they will … maybe next year we can cry defeat and move on from this endeavor to something else,” Stewart said.