test stress

Personal data of 52 New York students is compromised after testing-company breach

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN

More than 50 students across New York had their personal information compromised in a recent data breach, state education officials said Thursday, blaming the incident on a private testing vendor that has recently come under fire in other states for testing mishaps.

The vendor, Questar Assessment, Inc., suspects that a former employee illicitly accessed the names, student-identification numbers, schools, grade levels, and teachers of at least 52 students who took state tests on computers last spring, according to state education department officials. The breach occurred between Dec. 30 and Jan. 2, though Questar first notified the state on Tuesday, officials said.

The breach is likely to fuel the already widespread opposition among New York parents and educators to the state’s standardized tests, which nearly one in five students refused to take last year. In addition to criticisms about the content of the exams and how the results are used, some testing critics have raised concerns about whether private test-providers are able to safeguard students’ personal data.

The flub may also complicate the state’s drawn-out transition to computer-based tests, which are currently only used in a small number of schools.

In a conference call with reporters Thursday, State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said the department had asked the state attorney general to investigate the matter and ordered Questar to take “immediate corrective action.” She noted that only a fraction of the roughly 88,000 students who took computer-based tests last year were affected, but said that is still unacceptable.

“Any data breach is unacceptable,” she said, “particularly when we’re talking about children’s information.”  

The affected students attend five schools across the state. In New York City school, 10 students had their information compromised. The students attend P.S. 15 Jackie Robinson in Queens, and took trial exams on computers this spring, not the actual state test, according to the city department of education.

New York hired Questar in part to quell testing anxiety after the state’s former test vendor, Pearson, made a series of missteps that inflamed the grassroots backlash against the state tests. Questar’s roughly $44 million contract runs through 2020 and requires the company to develop computer-based exams, in addition to paper tests.

The setback also threatens to make the switch to computer-based testing more arduous. While only 28,000 took last year’s state exams on computers (and another 60,000 took computer-based trial tests), the state hopes to eventually move all students to computer-based testing. The state has pushed back the transition for years, and on Thursday officials said they still do not have a “firm time frame.”

The data breach is just the latest testing flub involving Questar.

Last year, roughly 9,400 Tennessee students received incorrect test scores due to a glitch in Questar’s test-scanning program. And in Missouri, the state education department threatened legal action against Questar after a design problem with its exams meant that they could not be used to evaluate districts or compare student performance across the state, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

In New York, Questar notified state education department officials of the breach Tuesday afternoon, about two weeks after it occured. The officials immediately asked for more information and Commissioner Elia personally called Questar’s president, Steve Lazer, that evening, state officials said. However, the company did not provide the state with the names of affected students and schools until Thursday afternoon.

Officials on Thursday said they were in the process of notifying impacted schools and families.

The department is also forcing Questar to take a series of actions, including resetting the passwords of all user accounts, hiring an outside group to audit the company’s security protocols, and submitting a “corrective action plan” to the department that list the actions Questar has taken since the breach.

“Families deserve to know that their children’s information is safe,” said Amy Spitalnick, a spokeswoman for New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, adding that the office had opened an investigation into the breach.

A Questar representative said late Thursday that the company was preparing a written statement, but none was available at that time.

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Sayonara, SESIS: New York City to scrap its beleaguered special education data system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

New York City is scrapping a special education data system that has frustrated educators since it launched nearly a decade ago.

The troubles of SESIS, as the city’s Special Education Student Information System is called, are well known. Since its launch in 2011, the system — which required over $130 million to build — cost the city tens of millions of dollars in settlements, at times malfunctioned more than 800,000 times a day, and made it difficult to track whether students with disabilities are getting the services they need.

Education department officials said they have been able to “stabilize” the system in recent years. But they also have concluded that an entirely different system is needed. On Friday, they announced that they would phase SESIS out and replace it with something new — at a cost and on a timeline that is not yet clear.

The announcement comes on the eve of a City Council hearing set for Monday where council members say they will press for more transparency about special education.

“It was originally designed as a document management system,” Lauren Siciliano, the education department’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer, said about SESIS. “Think more of a filing cabinet right now as opposed to being able to follow a student through the process.”

Special education teachers often spent hours navigating a maze of drop-down menus — inputting data such as whether they met with a student and for how long — only to experience error messages that erased their answers.

Megan Moskop, a former special education teacher at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, said she once encountered 41 error messages in two hours. What’s more, she said, the system didn’t reflect the experiences she had with her students.

“At the end of the day, I would be expected to go in, mark that they are present, mark whether they made progress toward a goal,” Moskop said. “It’s very standardized.”

It is not yet clear how quickly the education department will phase SESIS out. Officials said the city would begin a multistage process of identifying a vendor to create a new system by the end of March, then would ask for more detailed plans by the end of 2019. An official purchasing process would happen after that, Siciliano said, meaning that construction of  a new system will not begin for well over a year. Families and educators would be consulted throughout, officials said.

Linda Chen, the department’s chief academic officer, said a new system would lead to tangible improvements for students with disabilities.

“I do think that if we have clear and reliable visibility into the data it would absolutely allow us to better serve our students,” Chen said.

Flaws with SESIS have made it difficult to know how well the city is serving students with disabilities. Because the system was not set up to communicate with other city databases, city officials have had to manually tabulate data across systems. And the annual reports that show whether students are receiving required services may not be accurate because of the system’s flaws, officials have warned.

The system’s glitches also made the user experience so cumbersome that teachers had to spend time on nights and weekends entering data. An arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay over $38 million in teacher overtime.

Additionally, the system has sparked legal action. Former Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit claiming that SESIS was to blame for some children not receiving services as well as lost Medicaid payments. Between 2012 and 2015, according to the IBO, the city collected $373 million less in Medicaid reimbursements than officials projected.

Some advocates said that given SESIS’s troubled history, it makes sense to find alternatives.

“There has to be a strong data system in place,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “We are eager to see a better system to be put in place, but are really worried about that transition period.”

Advocates have also pushed the city to make the data SESIS tracks directly available to parents.

“We will absolutely be looking at that,” Siciliano said.

next steps

Charter schools racing to find new buildings as district ends their leases

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Escuela Avancemos will move to a new building.

At least two Detroit charter schools are racing against the clock to find new buildings for more than 500 students next fall after the city district decided not to renew their leases.

It’s the latest move in an ongoing effort by the Detroit Public Schools Community District to get out of the charter business, and it means another bout of uncertainty for schools that enroll hundreds of children in Detroit.

Leaders of GEE-Edmonson Academy and GEE-White Academy face the daunting challenge of finding new buildings before the start of the next school year. Another school, Escuela Avancemos, already found a new building. More schools, including Rutherford Winans Academy, have leases that expire this year, but their representatives did not return requests for comment on whether their lease was renewed.

Most students at the two schools run by Global Educational Excellence (GEE) walk every day, Superintendent Michael Conran said. If a new building can’t be found in those neighborhoods, the school’s would face new transportation challenges, casting doubt on their ability to maintain their enrollment.

“We were clearly not anticipating that the leases would not be renewed,” Conran said. “That news came pretty late, I believe it was after the New Year. That’s quite a notification to the boards in such a short period of time.”

The challenges for these schools don’t end there. The district could also decline to renew their charters for the GEE schools when they expire in June, potentially forcing them to find new backers as well as new buildings.

More than one charter school has already jumped ship. Escuela Avancemos, a small school in southwest Detroit, will begin the coming year in a new building and with a new authorizer, Central Michigan University. Officials had begun searching for a new building even before they were notified last month that their lease would not be renewed.

“For the protection of our school, we’ve had to take matters into our own hands to guarantee our future,” said Sean Townsin, principal at Escuela Avancemos.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made clear soon after he took the helm of the district in 2017 that he believed the district’s resources should be channeled toward its own students, not toward charter schools.

He reiterated that position last year when the district severed its ties with a three-school network of charter schools, forcing it to scramble to find new buildings and a new charter. Parents were forced to choose between an extraordinarily long commute to the new site and making an unwanted switch to another school. Enrollment was cut in half.

Supporters of the move pointed out at the time that those schools had been district schools until they were spun off by state-appointed emergency managers. In a city with lots of school options and few quality schools, they argued, some consolidation is necessary.

Most charters in Detroit are overseen by Michigan’s public universities, but 10 schools are supervised by the Detroit district.

A handful of those schools also rent their school buildings from the district, putting them in a particularly vulnerable position should the district decide that it would rather not support charter schools — its chief competitors for students and state funding.

In a statement about those schools, Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said the the charter schools could eventually be replaced with district schools.

“Now that we have the leadership to rebuild the district, we need to review and maximize our property assets. This means possibly re-using currently leased schools for new DPSCD schools, replacing older buildings with high repair costs, or adding a school in an area where facility usage and class sizes are high where another traditional public school does not exist. We understand and accept if district charters are leaving for other authorizers.”

No matter the district’s plans, Conran said the Global Educational Excellence schools would continue trying to serve students.

But he asked for transparency from the district and time to plan.

“I’m just simply waiting to hear from DPS any decisions they anticipate making in as timely a manner as we need to make sure we can continue to support these students and their families,” he said.