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The Utah State Board of Education voted to cancel its contract with Questar Assessment on Thursday, June 6, 2019.

Students from third to eighth grade will be taking their state standardized tests using a new technology platform next school year.

The Utah State Board of Education (USBE) voted Thursday to cancel its contract with Questar Assessment, which provided the technology platform for state RISE tests for third through eighth grade during the 2018–2019 school year.

The platform is different from the tests themselves, which were developed by Utah educators.

The state aims to have a different provider in place at the beginning of next school year, though that provider will be on a short-term contract. While looking for a short-term provider, USBE will also start the process of selecting a long-term provider.

“The decision comes at the end of a testing window filled with interruptions and other technology problems with the platform used by Questar for the computer-adaptive tests,” said a USBE news release. “Rather than risk continued interruptions, USBE is terminating what otherwise would have been a 10-year $44 million contract.”

School districts in Northern Utah were not spared from experiencing these glitches.

In Weber School District, there were four days of full system outages during the 4-6 week long testing window, said Sheri Heiter, director of curriculum for the district.

“When your (testing) window is four weeks to six weeks long, taking out that many days really impacts the ability to get students in and get them tested,” Heiter said.

The district’s other primary challenge was the sixth grade math assessment. In some cases, the platform would skip test items and not allow students to go back to them. Some sixth graders were not able to complete all test questions, Heiter said.

Heiter said the district knows of about 150 sixth grade students who experienced problems with the math assessment.

The district also encountered problems with score reporting.

When students finished the assessment, they would immediately see a scaled score and proficiency level.

“So the students were reporting that ‘hey, I got a three or I got a four,’ and then the teacher would pull their report and they would be wildly different,” Heiter said. The teacher report showed much lower scores than what the students were seeing.

“That was a little bit disheartening for teachers and students who had worked really hard throughout the year,” Heiter said.

The district later learned that the higher student scores were the correct scores, but the teachers don’t yet have access to them.

Heiter said the district is waiting for an “all clear” from the vendor that individual student reports are accurate before they will post them to the parent portal and student information system — or use the data to make planning decisions for next year.

July 15 is the target date for results to be released for all assessments besides English Language Arts. Those results are expected by Oct. 15, though Heiter thinks they’ll likely be available sooner.

“We really do believe, though, that many students had a decent testing experience, that the score is an accurate reflection of their understanding of Utah core content,” Heiter said. “But there were some children who were negatively impacted, and it’s really hard to say what the complication was — was it a testing platform issue or a student understanding issue?”

Heiter said that educators will need to be thoughtful when they look at the data, and incorporate other sources of data to make instructional decisions — which teachers already do as standard practice.

Shauna Lund, community relations supervisor with Davis School District, shared this statement on behalf of the district about last year’s testing:

“It has been a very difficult testing season. It’s been hard on our teachers, students and administrators. We really appreciate our dedicated teachers and students for making the best of a less than ideal situation.”

Ogden School District experienced similar problems to Weber School District, said Adam McMickell, director of student achievement for the district.

Despite these issues, though, educators weren’t necessarily eager to leave the platform, because learning a new platform is also a lot of work.

Heiter said that it was her perception that many were hopeful that problems with the existing system would be fixed so they could move forward, but what’s most important is that teachers have a reliable assessment system that produces data they can use in making decisions.

“I truly believe that the state had the best interest of our children in mind when they made this decision,” Heiter said. “It couldn’t have been easy.”

Heiter said that she also appreciated that the state office reached out many times to get feedback and understand what was happening in the field.

“Whenever you switch platforms, that requires substantial training and a learning curve, and that comes with time and energy and effort,” McMickell said.

“We appreciate the USBE response in that we believe that they were considering the long-term impact on students and the inherent risk of continuing with Questar, and any decision that’s in the best interest of our students, certainly we respect that,” McMickell said, describing conversations he’s had with administrators. “Now we have to put our minds toward implementing and training on a new system.”

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