The technical issues experienced during the October 20 province-wide trial of the online Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test (OSSLT) were caused by an intentional, malicious and sustained Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack—a type of cyberattack.
An extremely large volume of traffic from a vast set of IP addresses around the globe was targeted at the network hosting the assessment application. The impact of this DDoS was to block legitimate users’ (i.e., school boards’, schools’ and students’) access to the Education Quality and Accountability Office’s (EQAO) test application. At the height of the DDoS attack, 99% of the traffic in the system was not coming from schools or school boards. This effectively blocked legitimate user access to the system.
EQAO shares the disappointment experienced by thousands of students, families and educators across the province. The agency recognizes the considerable time and energy spent preparing for the trial assessment, and it sincerely apologizes for the considerable inconvenience that resulted.
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The day after the cyberattack, an independent third-party forensic firm started an investigation into the incident on behalf of EQAO. The firm’s final report is expected shortly.
The Toronto Police Service was also notified by EQAO and is conducting an investigation.
At this time, the entity or entities responsible for the DDoS attack remain unknown. Investigations are still ongoing, and these will hopefully provide clarity on both their identity and motives.
There are a variety of measures that can help mitigate the risk of a DDoS attack, and the investigations will lead to recommendations on how best to prevent similar incidents in the future.
The investigations will shed light on whether factors other than the cyberattack impacted the October 2016 online OSSLT.
Throughout the morning of October 20, EQAO received reports of significant problems with the system from across the province. Students were having difficulties accessing the assessment application. Those who could log into the system may have seen white screens or may have experienced substantial lag or program freezing. In light of such issues, some school boards cancelled their participation in the OSSLT altogether. EQAO attempted to resolve the technical issues, but problems persisted. It was unclear how long these problems would endure, and what the broader nature and scope of the issue was.
Wanting to end a situation that was contributing to considerable frustration and anxiety for students and educators—and taking into account the fact that the full extent of the issue was not known—EQAO decided that it would be best to cancel the assessment. At the time, EQAO acted on the best available information and in what it considered to be the best interest of students.
EQAO cannot apologize enough for the frustration and distress that this situation has caused. We sympathize with the sentiments of students, parents and educators, and we will take all measures possible to prevent similar incidents in the future.
Three years of research, surveys of the technical readiness of school boards and five field trials involving a total of 35,310 students in every region of Ontario were undertaken in the lead-up to the October 20 online OSSLT assessment. The field tests helped to verify the system’s readiness on smaller scales, and these were generally successful.
EQAO also conducted load tests to gauge the system’s capacity to handle a large number of users. In the days prior to the assessment, a load test was conducted to simulate 250,000 students’ and 10,000 proctors’ presence in the system at the same time, and the test was successful.
EQAO did not anticipate that anyone would try to interfere with the October 20 online OSSLT assessment through an intentional and targeted attack of this magnitude.
No personal or private student information was compromised during the administration of the assessment.
Following the cyberattack on October 20, there were questions that needed to be answered before a decision could be made about whether EQAO would be able to score completed tests. The decision whether to score and report OSSLT results was informed by numerous factors, including the best interests of students, a strong consensus within Ontario’s education community, equity considerations and our ability to ensure the data received through the system are accurate and complete.
After a review of these factors, EQAO determined that it would be able to score and report for the following groups of students:
students for whom we received complete responses for both Sessions 1 and 2 (i.e.,
Booklets 1 and
Students who were not able to access the testing site, who did not have the opportunity to complete the test or who were not successful will still be considered first-time eligible for the regularly scheduled OSSLT in March 2017. In addition, students who attempted the trial will be eligible for the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Course (OSSLC) at the principal’s discretion.
Scoring has been completed for the students for whom we received sufficient information to provide a result. EQAO received sufficient information to score approximately 22,400 students. Results were sent to schools in mid-January 2017.
As discussed with members of Ontario’s education community, the October 20 online OSSLT assessment was a voluntary trial-run of the online testing platform in preparation for the regularly scheduled OSSLT in March 2017. After earlier field tests, the larger-scale trial was necessary to help identify any last technical issues within the system before running the full assessment.
Schools and school boards were invited to participate in the October 20 assessment on a voluntary basis. Participation was decided by schools in consultation with students and parents, along with the appropriate teaching staff. For students, there was nothing to lose academically and possibly early completion of the OSSLT to gain. Any student who was not successful on October 20 would still be considered first-time eligible to write the March 2017 assessment.
Originally, our intention was to deliver the March 2017 OSSLT online and provide a back-up paper version of the assessment. Because we have not yet successfully completed a large-scale trial of our system, we have decided that the March 2017 OSSLT will only be conducted in the paper format.
There are three reasons:
In short, we want to come back with a system that is even better than what we had before. We want a system that better addresses needs with respect to security, usability and accessibility. We’ll take the time required to consider the recommendations of the education community and integrate that feedback into our system design.
While we are pressing “Pause” on the move toward online assessments in order to confirm the validity of our approach and the strength of our system, we are by no means hitting “Stop.” At this time, we cannot provide a timeline for the move to online assessments, but we can confirm that the process of consulting Ontario’s education community and of collecting feedback is already well underway. We will make every effort to address concerns and recommendations, and we will come back with a system that is even better than what we had before.
In the interim, EQAO will continue to provide data that helps Ontario’s education community improve student achievement.
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Yes, the shift toward online assessments remains appropriate. There are many teachers and educators in the province who are encouraging EQAO to carry on with its vision of online assessments.
EQAO’s shift to online assessments mirrors classroom trends that see a greater emphasis on the use of digital technology. Students also tend to engage more effectively with online assessments, as opposed to those that are paper-based. In the future, computer-facilitated assessments may also offer the potential to assess additional skills that cannot be measured by traditional paper-and-pencil tests. Notwithstanding the DDoS attack, EQAO remains confident that assessments can be successfully administered online in partnership with schools and school boards.
EQAO remains committed to modernizing its assessment delivery in order to offer students the most authentic opportunities to demonstrate their learning (e.g., modes and supports that mirror their classroom and real-world experiences).