Cyber attacks paralyze state math and reading tests
By Celia Llopis-Jepsen
In the latest chapter of the technical woes affecting Kansas' annual state math and reading tests, cyber attacks are now frustrating attempts by schools to fulfill federal requirements to complete the tests, the Kansas State Department of Education confirmed Tuesday.
Attacks by unknown external sources started last week after test designers finally resolved many of the internal technical glitches that had hindered test-taking when annual tests started earlier last month.
The attackers are using distributed denial of service attacks (DDOS), a technique that slows down or disables networks by overwhelming them with traffic rather than hacking into them. Officials from the education department and KU's testing center said Tuesday no student data had been compromised.
Meanwhile, the state's sixth-largest district, Topeka Unified School District 501, has called off test-taking, a reflection of the frustration that many school administrators have felt as their students attempted before and after spring break to access and complete tests.
Superintendent Julie Ford informed teachers in an e-mail Tuesday that the district had made a "noble effort" to complete the tests and that individual schools can continue to experiment with them if they like. This year is a pilot year for new, more technologically advanced state tests that rely less on multiple-choice questions and more on students filling out test answers or manipulating data on screen. Though this yearÃ¢€™s test results wonÃ¢€™t count for accountability purposes such as school accreditation, schools are eager to see students adjust to the new test format before next year, when the results will.
DENIAL OF SERVICE ATTACKS
The state's testing platform is operated by The University of Kansas' Center for Educational Testing and Evaluation.
Marianne Perie, director of the testing center, said the denial of service attacks began last Thursday and came mostly from IP addresses outside of the U.S. The testing center was able to mitigate 85 percent of the problem by blocking overseas traffic, she said, and then boosting bandwidth to prevent the remaining DDOS attacks from affecting legitimate testing traffic.
The attacks stopped on Sunday and testing ran smoothly on Monday.
That was a great relief to school districts. More than 50,000 Kansas students were able to take and complete state tests in a single day. Brady Dean, who coordinates testing for Topeka Unified School District 501, said the district's experience on Monday indicated that KU seemed to have successfully resolved most of the internal glitches with the testing platform, except for isolated problems with a text-to-speech function.
But by Tuesday morning, the DDOS attacks resumed, this time from IP addresses within the U.S.
Perie said the testing center has sought help from an external company in addressing the problem, but she declined to make public the steps that the company and the center are taking.
She said she was hopeful the problem would be resolved before Wednesday morning, but that the testing center has notified school districts they should expect to wait until Thursday.
But some school districts are frustrated with the amount of time teachers and students have spent trying to complete tests.
USD 501 teachers received an email from Ford Tuesday informing them that the district has called off testing.
"Officially, Topeka Public Schools, as many districts across the state, is choosing to suspend all assessments," Ford said. "We feel our district has made a noble effort to accomplish the task and we know many students, teachers and parents are frustrated."
Ford noted this year's results won't count toward accreditation.
"The assessments this year are only being used for test question validation and practice for students in the new testing environment," she wrote.
The state education department said Tuesday school districts must complete testing. Asked whether there are penalties for failing to do so, communications director Denise Kahler said no. However, Kahler and Perie said test results from this pilot year are necessary to determine whether any test items were invalid before next year.
"So that affects everybody across the state," Kahler said.
Kahler said the education department hadn't received notice from any school districts that they wouldn't continue this year's tests. Later in the afternoon, Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker sent a message to school districts saying Kansas is required by federal law to administer the tests.
"It is KSDE's expectation that districts and schools do the same," DeBacker wrote in an email.
"Please know that KSDE understands the frustration experienced by many students and staff members while the new assessment has been rolled out," she said. "The perseverance by all is greatly appreciated."
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