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.

baby steps

Efforts to integrate schools in one corner of New York City show promising signs, according to new data

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
P.S. 15 Roberto Clemente is one of the District 1 schools that met enrollment targets under a new diversity plan.

A school integration plan launched in Manhattan’s District 1 showed early signs of progress, according to data released Thursday by the education department.

Seven of the district’s 16 elementary schools met their targets for offering a more diverse group of students admission. If families accept those offers, it would mean three more of the district’s schools fall within the city’s goals than before the plan was implemented.

More progress was made when it comes to offering admission to a similar share of students with disabilities across all schools. All but one school — East Village Community School — met their goals.

The goal is for all elementary schools to enroll a share of needy students — those who are homeless, living in poverty, or still learning English — that is close to District 1’s average of 67 percent. Before the integration plan was implemented, only four elementary schools in the district fell within that range.

The district also wants schools to admit a similar proportion of students who have special needs: between 9 and 29 percent.

But large disparities remain among schools. At the Neighborhood School, only 38 percent of offers went to needy students, compared with 81 percent of offers at Franklin D. Roosevelt. East Village Community school only offered 7 percent of seats to students with disabilities. At the STAR Academy, it was 25 percent.

“There was no belief that, in one year, this was going to transform everything,” said Matt Gonzales, who supports school integration work through the nonprofit New York Appleseed. “So it sounds like there’s been some shifts and that’s a really positive development.”

District 1 is the first place where the city is trying to integrate elementary schools across an entire district. The stakes for the trial are high: Encompassing the Lower East Side, East Village and a sliver of Chinatown, the district is widely seen as a potential model for other integration plans that are in the planning stages.

The numbers released Thursday only reflect admissions offers made. Parents still have to accept them. But they could also decide to send their children elsewhere, meaning the student enrollment could ultimately be different.

“If this was enrollment, I would be high-fiving everyone,” said Naomi Peña, the president of the local Community Education Council who has been an outspoken advocate for the district’s integration plans. “I think the real meat and potatoes is the actual registration.”

Districts across the city, including District 15 in Brooklyn, are developing their own proposals to spur more school diversity. So far, District 1 — a small, diverse neighborhood where all of the elementary schools are unzoned — is the only place where the city has moved forward after years of advocacy from parents.

Under the new admissions model, needy students receive priority for a portion of seats in the incoming kindergarten and pre-K classes at every school. It is coupled with an on-the-ground effort to make schools more welcoming to families of all backgrounds, and encourage parents to consider schools they may have shunned in the past. That work has been seen as crucial to making the plan work, since parents still have to choose where to send their children.

Another test of the model will come later this spring, when offers for pre-Kindergarten admissions go out.

The education department says progress is being made in other elementary schools across the city that have pursued their own integration efforts through the Diversity in Admissions program. Most of the dozen schools in that program met their targets for the upcoming year, according to data released by the education department.

Similar to the efforts in District 1, schools that opt-into the program reserve a portion of their open seats for needy students. Except the Diversity in Admissions program is school-by-school, instead of district-wide, and participating schools set their own enrollment goals. Some aim to admit more students who are in the child welfare system or have incarcerated parents, with targets ranging from 20 percent of students, to 75 percent.

I am excited to build on the progress we’ve made,” the outgoing schools Chancellor, Carmen Fariña, said in a statement.


Impressed by Memphis students planning April walkout, Hopson gives his blessing

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson meets with student leaders from Shelby County Schools and other Memphis-area schools to discuss their planned walkout on April 20 to protest gun violence in the wake of this year's shooting rampage at a Florida high school.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said Thursday that students who walk out of Memphis schools next month to protest gun violence will not be punished.

He also invited student organizers of the April 20 demonstration to speak April 24 to the Board of Education for Shelby County Schools “so our community can hear from these wonderful, thoughtful students.”

Hopson met Wednesday with about a dozen student leaders from district high schools, including White Station, Ridgeway, Central, and Whitehaven and Freedom Preparatory Academy.

“Based on this incredible presentation, I have agreed to be supportive of the walkout, as long as it’s done in an orderly fashion and as long as we work some of the details out,” Hopson said after the meeting.

“No students will be suspended or expelled for taking part in this event. No teachers will be disciplined for being supportive of these students,” he said.

At least six Memphis-area high schools are planning student walkouts on the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting that killed 13 students and wounded 20 others in Littleton, Colorado.

Shelby County students did not participate in the March 14 nationwide walkout because Shelby County Schools and other local districts were on spring break. That walkout, which was held on the one-month anniversary of a shooting in Parkland, Florida, pushed for stricter gun laws and memorialized the 17 people killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

The April 20 walkout is part of a related nationwide “day of action” that encourages school events focused on pushing policy changes to reduce gun violence.

Hopson’s declarations put to rest concerns that students might be punished for trying to exercise their First Amendment rights of free speech while the district also seeks to ensure school safety. Earlier this month, school districts in Arkansas, Georgia, Maryland, and New Jersey threatened students with unexcused absences, detention, and disciplinary action if they participated in the March 14 walkout.

Most of the student organizers in Memphis are involved in BRIDGES, a program that brings students together across racial and socio-economic divides to discuss civic issues.

Hopson called their walkout plan “one of the most amazing presentations I’ve ever seen.”

Many Memphis-area students also plan to participate Saturday in the related nationwide “March for Our Lives.” More details on the local march are available here.