CARTHAGE, Mo. — Thousands of high school students were in the middle of an important state-administered test last month when they were stopped by the image of a spinning disc in the middle of their screens, the computer equivalent of labored breathing.

At Carthage High School, five classrooms of students were taking the test. For a while, only a third could access it, said Kandy Frazier, assistant superintendent for instruction.

“It was not a conducive testing situation,” Frazier said. “It delayed students and caused anxiety.”

The problem originated in a data center operated by Questar, a company hired by the state to administer the end-of-course test. At 8 a.m. on April 25, Questar’s computers began to show signs of strain, and tests being taken around the state slowed down.

“They were overwhelmed, basically,” said Blaine Henningsen, assistant commissioner of the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. “Evidently they had a peak occurrence.”

Missouri, like a few other states, pays Questar to provide online tests such as the end-of-course exam given to high school students around the state. As officials decide how to respond to the slowdown, they say it will be a factor in future contracts.

Two days after the slowdown, superintendents across the state received an email from Margie Vandeven, Missouri commissioner of education, explaining the problem. She said Questar shifted its operations to a new data center in late 2016.

“We recognize the inconvenience this placed on students and schools administered during the identified time frame and have worked to ensure that the issue is resolved,” she wrote.

Questar officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Over a period of roughly two and a half hours, thousands of test-takers were interrupted by a spinning wheel, a sign that the testing program was running slowly.

For many of the 251 districts hit by the slowdown, which include Carl Junction, Joplin, Sarcoxie, Carthage, Webb City, Diamond, Nevada and St. Louis, it was a passing inconvenience. Some students resumed testing after a delay of several minutes, according to Henningsen.

In all, 14,666 students were affected, a fraction of the more than 120,000 who took the test that day.

In Sarcoxie, 29 students were affected by the slowdown, but all of them completed the exam.

But even a small disturbance during a test can hurt students, according to the district superintendent.

“Any time something abnormal happens, it causes more stress for kids and teachers, which can affect results,” said Kevin Goddard, Sarcoxie superintendent.

Karen Talbot, lead counselor at Webb City High School, says the district was well-positioned to handle a glitch. When the test began slowing down, students switched to different computers. An IT specialist tasked with making sure the tests ran smoothly was quickly in touch with Questar customer service.

In any case, most of the 26 affected students were nearly done with the multiday test.

“I would have panicked if we were starting them all on that day,” Talbot said. “We got lucky, I guess.”

A lot rides on the outcome of the state-mandated exam for high school students. It measures knowledge in broad subject areas like English, algebra and government. Passing is a graduation requirement. At Carthage High School, the result counts for 20 percent of a student’s final grade in the related class. A good score on the algebra 1 test can help students qualify for A+, a state scholarship program.

As CHS emptied out on April 25, the system showed two active tests begun at 8:30 a.m. Administrators rushed to find the students, who had simply walked away from their computers when the test began to malfunction, Frazier said. They eventually finished, but not before missing the bus. Their parents collected them at school.

Frazier hopes state officials will accommodate students impacted by the slowdown.

“If they were adversely affected, they deserve another chance,” she said.

Henningsen says the department will look closely at the problem after the last end-of-course exam is given on May 26. By comparing test results of students who were affected by the slowdown with those who were not, officials hope to measure the impact of the spinning dial.

Depending on the results, the department could offer accommodations to affected students. Districts that asked to move testing times because of the slowdown were allowed to do so, Henningsen said.

 

Contract renewals

The state renews most of its testing contracts every year, and it will soon open bids for the contract currently held by Questar. As officials review the bids, “all of these issues will be considered,” said Blaine Henningsen, assistant commissioner of DESE, referring to the slowdown. 

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