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Internal E-mails Show Grave Concern with RISE Testing

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – Around a quarter past midnight on April 26th, Assistant Superintendent Darin Nielsen fired off an email to his contact at Questar Assessments.

Testing that day had been suspended after problems statewide. Nielsen’s frustration was apparent.

“…You fail to consider how schools function,” wrote Nielsen.

His frustration would only grow.

KSL Investigators obtained internal communication between Questar, the Utah State Board of Education, and teachers through a public records request.

The communications range from simple testing reset requests, to exasperation.

Utah’s $44 million contract with Questar is up for discussion at Thursday’s state school board meeting, where board members could choose to fine Questar or walk away from the contract altogether.

On five different days slowdowns kept students across the state from successfully taking the tests.

One teacher ended her email to Questar customer support with six words. “This makes me want to cry.”

The teacher was weighing whether her students would retake the Language Arts tes, or just take low scores, which would reflect poorly on her, the students, the school, and so on.

In its communication with state officials, Questar blamed technical malfunctions like page locks, scoring process problems, and database speeds. However, in that April 26th email Asst. Superintendent Nielsen revealed state officials had worried about these exact problems months earlier.

“I’m also concerned that we have not reached the peak of our spring (testing) window and your resources were apparently overloaded. In January, USBE staff expressed concerns with Questar’s load test and again during the February TAC meeting,” said Nielsen.

“I’m also troubled by the similarity to today’s event and those that occurred in Tennessee and New York. I had expected to Questar had taken the necessary steps to ensure your infrastructure contained enough resources and redundancy to ensure this type of event couldn’t occur,” said Nielsen.

His concerns echoed other states KSL identified in mid-May. Tennessee, New York and Texas all had problems with Questar or its parent company ETS.

In a statement to KSL, Questar Chief Operating Officer Brad Baumgartner said Questar’s load testing “indicated sufficient resources based on anticipated testing volume.”

Baumgartner also said, “The Tennessee and New York issues occurred during a prior testing period, and the root cause was different from those in Utah. We learned from our experience in those partner states and implemented changes that mad e us confident those same issues would not occur in Utah.”

But Nielsen’s emails to Questar grew more frustrated as more testing problems racked up — like in these excerpts:

“The events since Thursday are unprecedented in five years of computerized testing in Utah.”

“Seems to be a guessing game.”

“Confidence in Questar’s ability to provide a reliable assessment system is waning across our state.”

Baumgartner told KSL the following:

“We appreciate our partnership with the Utah State Board of Education. The state trusts us to provide a reliable assessment system that collects accurate student achievement and growth results, and we take that responsibility very serious. We are actively working with third-party firms to identify process and system enhancements. As part of our commitment to continually improving, we will waste no time implementing the recommendations.”

A final text message Nielsen sent to Questar’s Utah program head may be prove telling for Thursday’s discussion.

“These events are devastating,” said Nielsen.

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