State wants TBI to investigate potential student test hack

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — State Education Commissioner Candice McQueen asked that the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the state Office of Homeland Security investigate the potential hack of the computer system students use to take assessment tests, state officials announced Wednesday.

The announcement by McQueen’s office came after she spent part of the afternoon being grilled by state lawmakers about years’ worth of problems with Tennessee’s student assessment test, known as TNReady. Some Democrats have called for her to step down and some Republicans are demanding that the test be taken on paper.

McQueen asked Nashville’s district attorney to formally request that the TBI and the state Office of Homeland Security find out what happened. She is also working to find a cyber-security company that will investigate the vendor’s response. The company pays Questar Assessment Inc. to administer the test.

McQueen told lawmakers there is no evidence that any student data or information was compromised. But several of them were not satisfied.

Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, asked McQueen if she would step down and demanded an independent investigation of the testing problems.

“Rep. Stewart, I will start by saying no, I do not plan to resign,” the commissioner responded. She said testing was continuing to move forward after two unusual events Monday and Tuesday.

Rep. Sheila Butt, R-Columbia, said she had gotten a text that said a high school in her district continued to have problems Wednesday afternoon.

The education commissioner was defended by several lawmakers.

“Don’t you dare resign over this,” Rep. Mark White, R-Germantown, said. He said Tennessee students had made too much progress for her to step town.

A representative from the Minnesota-based company that administers the test said it followed all the proper procedures during a possible cyberattack.

“Our data systems did what they were supposed to do,” Brad Baumgartner, chief operating officer for Questar, said. “They shut the system down.” He also said the Minnesota Bureau of Investigation has made inquiries about the possible hack.

McQueen said the state is in the second year of a two-year contract with Questar that pays $30 million annually to the company to administer the test.

Several lawmakers on the Government Operations and Joint House Education committees expressed a lack of confidence after years of frustrations with the test.

In 2016, the state canceled its five-year $108 million contract with a testing company because of repeated failures, including the inability of students to get online to take the tests and later with problems getting paper assessments shipped to schools on time.

Last year, state officials announced that nearly 10,000 of the tests were scored incorrectly.

Teachers are evaluated partly based on the tests, and students and schools are also measured by the assessment. Several lawmakers said they thought it was unfair for any students, teachers or schools to be judged based on this year’s test because of the problems.

Lawmakers have filed amendments to a bill that would require students to take paper tests going forward and bar teachers from getting negative evaluations as a result of the tests.