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‘Intentional, malicious’ cyberattack led to Ontario literacy test system crash

The Ontario agency tasked with administering the first online literacy test to tens of thousands of high school students in the province last week says it was forced to pull the plug by an “intentional, malicious and sustained” cyberattack.

The Education Quality and Accountability Office said Monday the network hosting the “voluntary” online test was targeted by an “extremely large volume of traffic from a vast set of IP addresses around the globe.”

It said the impact of the distributed denial of service attack carried out by “an unknown entity or entities” was to block
legitimate users such as school boards and students from accessing the test.

Most of the province’s 900 secondary schools — representing a maximum of 147,000 students — had signed up to participate in the test, which was a technical trial run before the first official test scheduled next year.

The EQAO’s director of assessment said some 15,000 students appeared to have managed to complete the test, and the agency is currently reviewing the data to see whether the results can later be released. However, there will not be time for another trial test before the spring, Richard Jones said.

There is no evidence at this time that the incident was linked to a similar cyberattack that affected websites such as Twitter and Netflix on Friday, Jones said.

He said the agency shares the frustration felt by students, parents and educators.

“We’re totally shocked that this sort of attack would happen, it’s certainly nothing that we expected at all,” he said. “We expected, as part of this trial, that we … would find out that there might be technical issues at the school or board level, for example, we might have some learnings there that we would be able to go from, but we didn’t expect at all that there would be this kind of unwanted activity on our system.”

The EQAO, which oversees standardized testing in the province, said it is confident that student assessments can successfully be administered online.

The province’s education minister echoed that sentiment, saying offering online testing is the best way to support students. 

“We’re going to keep ensuring that Ontario students have an opportunity to write this test online,” Mitzie Hunter said. “Of course, in the spring we’ll ensure that there is a paper-based backup as well to ensure that all students are able to complete the test.”

An investigation into Friday’s incident is underway and will lead to recommendations to prevent similar problems in the future. 

The test was also meant to serve as a “risk-free” way for students to take it ahead of the next scheduled assessment in March 2017.

If students passed the online test, it would count, but if they failed or didn’t complete it, they would be considered “first-time eligible” for the test next spring.

The program was open to all 72 school boards, as well as First Nations and private schools.