Server issues disrupt STAAR exams across Texas

While thousands statewide are unable to test, most Mac freshmen were able to start and finish their tests on Tuesday


Dave Winter

Ms. Crane and Mr. Pass assist a student establish a WiFi connection prior to starting the ninth-grade English STAAR test on Tuesday morning.

Evelyn Griffin, co-news editor

This morning, as students across Texas prepared to take State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR tests, the online testing platform Educational Testing System (ETS) experienced a statewide outage, causing “problems with their database system.” The outage forced many schools, McCallum included, to send students who could not connect to the database home, postponing their tests until Friday. Principal Nicole Griffith sent an email to freshman parents alerting them of the problems and saying that most students were able to take the test as planned. 

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) did not know today how many students have been affected or to what degree. Some students had no problems with the new online platform while others experienced lagging or were completely unable to test. The tests affected by the outage were Grade 4 writing, Grade 7 writing and English I, which many McCallum freshmen were scheduled to take. Multiple media outlets reported that thousands of students across the state were unable to take the test. Some entire districts called off the test, and some individual schools sent students home after they were unable to log on to the online version of the test.

Mr. Martinez hauls a pile of Chromebooks through the hallway as the campus prepared to administer the ninth-grade English STAAR test on Tuesday.

McCallum did not cancel the test for all students. After learning that the system was down, students for more than an hour than attempted to log in again. By 10:30 many students were able to begin the test while others were able to start by 11.

“We realized early on that there were problems with connectivity and soon learned that it was related to state-wide outages,” Griffith said. “After a rocky start, we were able to get most students testing.”

Griffith said that 26 students were sent home because of the technical connectivity issues. The majority of the freshmen who came to take the test — 372 students — were able to access the test and complete it after the initial delay.

Freshman Chloe Marco took her English I STAAR this morning with numerous hiccups that began the moment she entered her testing room.

“There was an announcement saying there was an ‘issue with the system’ and that we’d have to wait while,” she said.

Marco waited for 90 minutes before beginning her test, but upon starting, new issues arose.

“The thing is, when the testing started there were so many errors, like the screen would freeze and the connection would go on and off,” Marco said.  “The teachers gave an option to leave and come back Friday, but no one in my room did.”

Freshman Freja Ljungqvist had a similar experience.

“We tried to get on but it wasn’t working, and then a bunch of announcements came on talking about how there was a statewide outage for the test,” Ljungqvist said. “We waited for about an hour and 45 minutes-ish, watched Star Trek and were finally able to start the test. It lagged, or sometimes it would say ‘loading’ and have to reconnect. That would go on for five minutes and then the test would start again, but it happened quite a few times. That happened to a lot of people and some people in my room couldn’t even start for another hour.”

Marco managed to complete her test in two hours, but she has concern for those who struggle more to complete standardized tests under normal circumstances, much less under the ones of this morning.

“Personally, I don’t get testing anxiety but I know that people who do have it would probably get extra horrified considering the circumstances,” she said. 

The thing is, when the testing started there were so many errors, like the screen would freeze and the connection would go on and off.

— Freshman Chloe Marco

Some students and some classrooms were able to access the test at around 10:30 while others were not able to begin testing until about 11 a.m.  Starting the test later than that would not have allowed students the entire scheduled time to complete the test before school ended.

Freshman Tessa Davern was the last in her room to begin testing due to computer and connectivity issues.

“I felt good about my essay and questions, except it was stressful at first because I didn’t know if I would finish that day or if I could even take it that day,” she said. “I do kind of wish the test was on paper because with computers I feel like something might go wrong, like what happened today.”

Marco also points out that most freshmen (the majority of students who had to test this morning) had never been on campus before, adding to their stress.

“It’s just weird because I didn’t know any teachers or students really, and had never been to school for classes, so it was completely new as if it was my first day,” Marco said.

Ljungqvist had been on campus before because her brother is also a McCallum student, but she had never been as a student herself.

A freshman student looks through the list of names to locating his testing room early on Tuesday morning.

“It was like the first day of school but it was really strange,” she said. “It was weird. I wasn’t expecting it.”

Griffith praised Mac freshmen for how they handled the unusual testing circumstances.

“I know it had to be scary to come to school for the first time as a freshman and take this test,” she said, “but our ninth-graders rose the occasion and seemed to take it all in stride. They showed a lot of resiliency in coming to school and working through the technical difficulties.”

Assistant principal Tamara Stone also praised the students on campus for how they handled the situation.

Our ninth-graders rose the occasion and seemed to take it all in stride. They showed a lot of resiliency in coming to school and working through the technical difficulties.

— principal Nicole Griffith

“I believe the students, mainly freshmen, did a beautiful job going with the flow of the day,” she said. “They had great composure under the circumstances, and I am sure that they did their best once they were able to start.  It was great to see many of our newest McCallum students for the first time.  Honestly, it was wonderful to see so many kids again, period.”

Stone also said she was not surprised when there were technical issues with the initial year of widespread online test administration of the STAAR.

“As I have been a Campus Testing Coordinator before — I was CTC the first year AISD had online testing — I was wondering if we would have issues with so many students testing across the school/district/state [because] there were issues that first year. I had been reassured that they had planned for this many students to be online testing this year.  But obviously, there were still glitches.  I am hopeful that Thursday, and now Friday as well, will go more smoothly.”

She praised test coordinator Sophia Sherline and faculty overseeing the test for making the best of a tough situation. Initially, the admin team though the larger issue could be resolved by power-washing individual Chromebooks, but they soon learned the issue was not on the user end.

When Stone and other faculty members realized the delay might be long, they decided to take advantage of the time rather than send everyone home straight away.

“I went around to various hallways and realized that it might be nice for students and teachers to talk during this time, as they have all been on computers all year,” Stone said. ” I decided to take sets of S.P.A.R.K. cards out and pass them out to teachers so that they could use the game to start some fun conversations.  As many kids in the different rooms had never met each other or seen each other before in person, I thought it would be an easy way to break the ice.”

I’m honestly happy that I got to finish it that day because I wouldn’t have to worry about it for much longer.

— freshman Tessa Davern

Sherline was expecting an update from the central testing authority by 10 a.m. but when that update did not come, she asked students to try again to connect. After many students connected and began the test, the admin team had to consider how to deal with the students who could not connect. Students were advised to power down their Chromebooks then power wash them and if they still could not connect by 11 a.m., they were sent home.

“As a team, we decided not to disrupt the students who had been able to get in and start testing, so we did not want to make anymore announcements,” Stone said. “For students who had not gotten in yet, or who kept getting kicked out of the system, we decided we would escort them from the classrooms.”

AISD meanwhile tweeted that “campuses will contact the parents of virtual learners who came to school for testing if they cannot take the test today and the campus will inform parents of next steps.”

McCallum students who were sent home today will make up their tests on Friday. Thursday’s tests will be administered as planned.

“I’m honestly happy that I got to finish it that day because I wouldn’t have to worry about it for much longer,” Davern said. “I was also already in the mindset that I like to have going into tests and I felt confident in myself.”

We understand the frustration this has caused students, parents, teachers, and administrators. What happened today is completely unacceptable.

— Texas Education Agency press release

The events of today have irritated many people who believe that the TEA should have waived STAAR tests this year. Some even believe that they should no longer be administered at all.

“We understand the frustration this has caused students, parents, teachers, and administrators,” the TEA said in a statement. “What happened today is completely unacceptable.”

In her email to freshmen parents, Griffith wrote, “We were hoping for a smooth testing day, and unfortunately, that did not happen. There were statewide technical difficulties, and we were directly impacted by them.”

The TEA said in its press release on Tuesday that it will switch vendors before next year’s tests. 

Ljungqvist thinks it was unfair of the TEA to put pressure on students to begin with, especially at a time like this.

“They should’ve waived STAARs this year because, although it wasn’t a problem for me, it didn’t seem appropriate for the year we’ve had,” she said. “It wasn’t something that should have been added on to the already stressful situation we’re in. We haven’t been learning like normal all year.”

Marco agrees.

“They should’ve waived STAAR tests because no one is currently in the correct mindsets to take them,” she said. “Doing school itself is extremely difficult, so adding on that it’s a big test is just doubling down on students.”

THIS DEVELOPING STORY has been updated with additional quotes from Mac admin team members.

— with reporting by Elisha Scott

The line of socially distanced STAAR testers winds around the circle drive all the way to Sunshine as freshmen wait to be screened and then admitted into the building.