AUSTIN (KXAN) — Susan Breedlove said she reluctantly dropped her two 15-year-olds off at school Tuesday morning.

Neither son had stepped foot on a campus since last school year due to the pandemic. Both have been attending classes virtually this year, but had to show up to take their STAAR exams in person.

“At 10:45 a.m. we got a call from one of our kids at McNeil [High School] and he said the system has crashed,” said Breedlove.

It was the first day of standardized state testing for students across Texas. Messages from teachers and superintendents started flooding into the KXAN newsroom saying children were sitting in classrooms waiting for testing problems to be fixed.

A high school teacher from Austin said, “The portal kids use to access the test crashed. It’s a statewide outage. Kids are just sitting in rooms waiting for TEA to provide instruction to districts.”

A few minutes later, Bloomburg ISD Superintendent Brian Stroman sent this message he said came from the Texas Education Agency:

At 10:30 a.m., Stroman said he received word from his regional service center that online testing was canceled for the day because there’s no longer enough time for students to take the test even if the issues were resolved.

Stroman and a counselor in his district said their high school students logged into the system to start taking the test at 8:45 a.m.

“They got in at the beginning, then the system locked up and it logged them out — booted them out.”

Stroman said his district received the first correspondence from TEA at 9:22 a.m. describing the technical difficulties. The service center told them the problem was statewide.

“We’ve done everything right. We’re ready, they weren’t,” Stroman said. “[TEA] dropped the ball.”

Stroman said campuses had the choice to use paper tests, but districts have been encouraged to go digital. The Texas education commissioner has been pushing schools to move all STAAR testing online by next year, which has Stroman concerned. His district decided to keep one elementary school testing the old fashioned way Tuesday with pencil and paper.

The TEA said in an email to superintendents that its vendor, Educational Testing Service, is “currently investigating the reports” of technical difficulties with the testing platform.

Shortly after, an email sent by the Round Rock ISD said the district’s testing day is canceled.

RRISD told KXAN not all students were scheduled to test today, because TEA gave flexibility with the testing windows.

“We know for sure that 1,177 fourth graders (writing) and 1,894 English I EOC testers had some sort of disruption today,” said Jenny Lacoste-Caputo, Chief of Public Affairs and Communications. “There could be more at the high school level who weren’t able to log in.”

TEA issued the following statement to KXAN just before noon:

“Earlier today, districts experienced connectivity issues with the STAAR Online Testing Platform (SOTP). We posted updates to the STAAR Assessment Management System dashboard every 10 minutes to keep districts apprised of the progress in resolving the issue.

“The three STAAR tests affected were Grade 4 writing, Grade 7 writing, and English I. This was the first of five days that students were eligible to take one of these three tests online.

“At 10:17 a.m. CDT today, districts were advised if they were having issues that they should stop online testing for the day while the vendor works to resolve these problems. Online testing will resume tomorrow.

“We are still analyzing data to determine the number of students affected. Students could have experienced four different scenarios with online testing today:

1) the student could have successfully submitted the test without disruption;
2) the student could have successfully submitted answers but may have noticed unusually slow response times;
3) the student could have been prevented from logging in to begin with; or
4) the student could have begun to answer questions, but at some point was prevented from continuing, and in this instance, answers were saved every thirty seconds so that these students will be able to pick up where they left off.

“We understand the frustration this has caused students, parents, teachers, and administrators. What happened today is completely unacceptable. ETS, the testing vendor, experienced problems with their database system, which are in the process of being corrected. The 2021 online administration of STAAR will be ETS’s last for the State of Texas. Beginning next school year, Cambium Assessment will be taking over these critical testing functions to ensure that users have a seamless online testing experience moving forward.

“All involved in public education in Texas should expect better than what they have experienced today; we are working to ensure that our students do not experience future testing issues.”

In another update late Tuesday afternoon, TEA said districts can plan to resume online testing on Wednesday. 

How will the scores be used?

In December, the TEA announced that school ratings tied to the test results would be paused for this school year due to the ongoing disruptions associated with COVID-19. Tuesday, the agency reemphasized that point by saying the STAAR results this year are for learning and recovery.

“Districts and campuses will use STAAR to identify learning gaps,” TEA said in a statement. “State and district leaders will use the results to ensure the schools and students in greatest need receive resources for recovery.”

Frequently Asked Questions and Answers from TEA

  1. When can students resume online testing?

Based on the flexibility already built into the online testing window, students impacted by the online testing disruption may resume online testing at any time during the five weeks scheduled for the April administration.

2. Can students testing online be switched to a paper test?

Yes, students who were scheduled to test online who began testing or who have not yet begun their online test may be moved to a paper test. However, it is recommended that students who have started their online test continue with their test online to avoid transcribing any answers that the student recorded in the online system. In addition, students who require specific accommodations that are provided online should continue to test online.

For students who started the online test and then are moved to a paper test, their online test should be marked as Do Not Report. For students who have not started the online test but are moved to a paper test, their online tests will be automatically voided at the close of the online testing window unless a score code is applied.

2. What should we do with online tests for students who are not able to complete the test?

If a student is not able to complete the online test during the five-week testing window (regardless of whether the student is an in-person learner or a remote learner), the district must determine whether the student’s score code should be “O” for Other or “S” for Score. 

3. Can students use the same test ticket that was issued for April 6th?

Yes, whether students began their test or had not yet begun the test, they may use the same test ticket that was issued for April 6th. No new test tickets are required for any students who resume testing or are moved to a test session later in the testing window. 

4. Will students be able to resume testing where they left off and will their answers be saved?

Yes, students’ answers that have been entered into the online system will be saved. This includes partial written responses that the student began (even if the student resumes testing in a different week within the five-week window). In addition, the questions previously responded to by students on April 6th will not be locked when students resume testing.

5. For students who resume testing, will the testing time start over?

No, for students who started the test and were not able to complete the test on April 6th, test administrators should have an estimate of the amount of time a student used. Then, the district should provide the remaining test time for the student to complete the test when they resume testing. For example, if a student was testing for about 30 minutes before being logged out of the test session, then the student should be provided with 3½ hours to complete the test when they resume testing. If a student was not able to log in and begin the test on April 6th, that student should be provided with the full 4 hours to test. 

6. If students began their written response on scratch paper on April 6th, can the students use their scratch paper when they resume testing?

Yes, if a student took notes or started a rough draft on scratch paper, the student may use his or her scratch paper when the test is resumed. However, it is important to ensure that the scratch paper is clearly identified as belonging to that student.