After glitches and disruptions, Utah school board gets $3 million in settlement with testing company

The agreement ends a two-year dispute over the exams that left students and teachers questioning the validity of the results.

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sixth graders at Fox Hollow Elementary School in Lehi take the state SAGE test in this file photo; it was later renamed RISE. The state reached a settlement with a testing provider on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021, after severe glitches in 2019.

The standardized testing company fired by Utah education officials will now pay the state more than $3 million to resolve a lawsuit after its glitches delayed thousands of students here from finishing their exams, blocked many from logging on and left some missing scores.

The legal settlement with Questar puts to an end to the more than two-year dispute over the testing disruptions that dogged the year-end exams in spring 2019.

“We are glad to reach a conclusion with Questar and move forward,” said Mark Huntsman, chair of the Utah State Board of Education, in a statement. “This settlement represents the closing of a chapter.”

After a closed session, the board voted last week to approve the agreement with the company. Questar will pay out $3,375,000.

The company declined to comment Monday.

Utah had originally signed a $44 million, 10-year deal with the provider. Concerns arose, though, in the first year of that — following similar issues in other states that contracted with Questar prior to Utah.

Sensitive student data was stolen in New York and Mississippi, for instance. And more than 1,400 students took the wrong test in Tennessee.

In Utah, at least 3,546 exams here, known as RISE, came back with missing scores, the state has said. Some kids reported not being able to log in. In a few schools, the grade on the screen when students finished didn’t match the reports that teachers later downloaded. And in others, the exam closed in the middle of a student filling in answers and wouldn’t let the user log back in.

Tests were delayed by days and, in some places, weeks. A few students were never able to finish.

It left many questioning the validity of the results, which are used in Utah to determine school and teacher performance. And all scores were thrown out for the year. The state also canceled its contract with Questar in July 2019.

At that point, Utah asked for $6.75 million in damages, which it was entitled to do with its contract. And it intended to use some of that money to pay off what it still owed in invoices.

But in a lawsuit, Questar, which is based in Minnesota, claimed it was not liable for damages — despite the exam interruptions, including not going live with spring testing as scheduled on March 19, 2019, according to a later state audit. The company said it provided an “adequate performance” and was actually owed $2.6 million from Utah.

The two parties had met several times to try to mediate the dispute. The dollar amount of the resolution is close to the difference between what Utah was asking for and what Questar said it deserved, as well as attorney fees.

The state had switched to Questar in 2018 after previously contracting with American Institutes for Research (AIR) to conduct what was then called the SAGE test. AIR had no reported issues in administering the tests, but SAGE had failed to gain traction in Utah since it was implemented in 2013. More and more parents each year opted their students out of the annual testing for grades three through eight.

The state school board hoped a new company and a new name, RISE, might change the attitude toward taking the exams. That didn’t pan out.

Now, after canceling the contract with Questar and with strong criticism from lawmakers over the ordeal, the board has returned to AIR to conduct the assessments. That contract is for three years — not including 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic — and $21 million.