EQAO has been working toward modernizing its provincial assessment program since 2014.
“EQAO Online” is a multi-year project to move EQAO’s provincial student assessments from paper-and-pencil to computer-based. Through the project, a phased approach was envisioned to roll out all elements associated with computer-based testing. The intent was to begin with the OSSLT and, after a successful launch, proceed with changes to the other EQAO assessments.
The OSSLT trial on October 20, 2016, was designed as a large-scale pilot test to gauge the system’s readiness prior to the regularly scheduled OSSLT in March 2017. The intent was to identify any remaining technical issues within the system before running the full assessment. Schools and school boards were invited to participate in the trial on a voluntary basis, and the decision to participate was theirs. As this was a trial, it was determined that any student who was not successful in October 2016 would still be considered first-time eligible to write the March 2017 assessment. Unfortunately, a malicious, intentional and targeted cyberattack disrupted the trial.
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As confirmed by both Deloitte and the Toronto Police Service, the technical issues experienced during the October 20, 2016 province-wide trial of the online 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 EQAO’s test application.
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 trial. At the time, EQAO acted on the best available information and in what it considered to be the best interest of students.
EQAO shares the disappointment of the 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.
The day of the cyberattack, an independent third-party forensic firm, Deloitte, was retained by EQAO to conduct an investigation into the incident. The Toronto Police Service was also notified shortly thereafter and began a separate investigation.
Both Deloitte and the Toronto Police Service confirmed EQAO’s original conclusion that a targeted DDoS cyberattack was the cause of the technical issues that led to the cancellation of the OSSLT on October 20, 2016.
The attack appeared to commence just after 8 a.m. on October 20, which coincides with the start of the school day in Ontario. The attack appeared to stop at around 12 p.m., which is within one hour of EQAO’s announcement that the test was cancelled. These observations lead to the conclusion that the cyberattack specifically targeted the OSSLT.
The reports from Deloitte and the Toronto Police Service contain specific recommendations on ways to enhance cybersecurity protection within EQAO’s system. EQAO has accepted these recommendations and will incorporate them into its system moving forward.
The Toronto Police Service is unable to identify the perpetrators of the cyberattack at this time.
The reports from Deloitte and the Toronto Police Service contain specific recommendations on ways to enhance cybersecurity protection within EQAO’s system. EQAO has accepted these recommendations and will incorporate them into its system moving forward. EQAO is also discussing the implications of these findings with its business partners and stakeholders, and has welcomed feedback from the education community about any aspect of its move to online assessments. These considerations will help determine next steps and timelines regarding the return to online assessments.
No personal or private student information was compromised during the administration of the assessment.
Originally, our intention was to deliver the March 2017 OSSLT online and provide a back-up paper version of the assessment. Because the DDoS attack prevented us from completing a large-scale trial of our system, we announced that the March 2017 OSSLT will be conducted only in the paper format. EQAO remains confident that assessments can be successfully administered online in partnership with schools and school boards.
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.
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). The shift toward online assessments remains appropriate. In fact, many teachers and educators in the province are encouraging EQAO to carry on with its vision of online assessments.
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 and from almost every school board were undertaken in the lead-up to the October 20, 2016 online OSSLT. The field tests helped to confirm 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.
Following the cyberattack on October 20, 2016, EQAO considered a number of factors to determine whether it would be able to score students who participated in the OSSLT, including the best interests of students, the 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
Scoring was 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.
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 are still considered first-time eligible for the regularly scheduled OSSLT in March 2017. In addition, students who attempted the trial but who did not succeed are eligible for the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Course (OSSLC) at the principal’s discretion.
As discussed with members of Ontario’s education community, the October 20, 2016 online OSSLT 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 trial on a voluntary basis, and the decision to participate was theirs. Any student who was not successful on October 20 would still be considered first-time eligible to write the March 2017 assessment.
Because the DDoS attack prevented us from completing a large-scale trial of our system, we announced that the March 2017 OSSLT will be conducted only in the paper format. EQAO remains confident that assessments can be successfully administered online in partnership with schools and school boards.
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 are making 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 through its paper-based assessments to help Ontario’s education community improve student achievement.
Please see EQAO’s
backgrounder about the EQAO Online project for more information about this initiative.